Portrait of Josette, 1916, Juan Gris © Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid

A recent Associated Press article, “Climate Migration: Indian kids find hope in a new language,” follows the Islams, an Indian family, as they’re forced to move across the country to Bengaluru when their Assam home was flooded in 2019. In a country with 23 official languages, the Islam children, Raju and Jerifa, must wrestle with a new tongue. “Those early days were difficult,” writes journalist Aniruddha Ghosal. “Classes at the free state-run schools were taught in Kannada, and Raju couldn’t understand a word of the instruction.”

But Raju and Jerifa’s story is only one example. Today, mass migrations are becoming increasingly frequent. They are prompted by climate change, such as the 2022 Pakistani flood; political catastrophes, like the 2015 Venezuelan crisis; or war, most recently the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The scale of these forced relocations foreshadows fragmentation of not merely individual identities, but social identities as well.

Such linguistic displacements are common to migration stories, but are too little discussed. As a young Taiwanese immigrant during the mid-nineties, I know too well how such transitions—and a life of living across languages—can leave a child with a fragmented sense of identity. In other words, in an age of mass migration and linguistic displacement, what is an Assamese Indian? A Venezuelan? A Ukrainian?

Fragmented Linguistic Identity

It is always difficult to articulate the phenomenon of identity, but it is even more challenging to understand identity fragmentation as a subcategory of identity. But here’s a way of thinking about it: consider how item names surface in different languages as I traverse the aisles of my local Asian supermarket.

Certain fruits and vegetables, such as 空心菜, 龍眼, 蓮霧, are exclusively Mandarin, while others, like avocado, zucchini, and celery, are exclusively English. Along with their names, I recall my culinary experiences of these items as well. Common vegetables, like A菜 (lettuce) and 高麗菜 (cabbage), pose dilemmas. While each appears in both Taiwanese and American cuisines, they are prepared differently. If I encounter these foods in Mandarin, I’d think of sautéing them lightly or with garlic. However, if I see them labeled in English, images of salads and coleslaw would appear.

This rift widens further once I get to the condiments and snacks aisles, with mayonnaise next to 沙茶醬, popcorn beside 旺旺仙貝. Although I have no problem categorizing the items—“these are fruits, those are vegetables”—the items are associated by the language in which they are presented. I’d pair “高麗菜” and “空心菜” together with “沙茶醬”, while “lettuce” and “celery” pair with “mayonnaise.” Every trip to the local store is a reconstruction of a fragmented culinary history embedded in language.

How can language create such a convoluted way of experiencing the everyday world? We can explore this phenomenon with two linked concepts: the speech act and the discourse community. The first conceives of an utterance as an action, with which the speaker attempts to impact their environment—hence, an act. This concept illuminates the context and training necessary to perform the action. For example, when I order cabbage at a restaurant, ask about a cabbage recipe, or praise a cabbage dish, I’m executing actions associated with “cabbage.” For me to perform these actions successfully, I must have been taught how to utter them, and be in the presence of those who can comprehend them.

This brings us to the concept of a discourse community. When my speech act teacher, my listener, and I understand the same speech acts, we also share an understanding of conduct: “Say X to do Y,” or “Respond with A when hearing B.” As we perform and respond to speech acts together, we can then say that we belong to the same community.

Thus, when I order a “cabbage” dish, I know I ought to behave in a particular way, use certain words, and address specific people (an English-speaking restaurant server). Despite the fact that it is the same vegetable, I am in a different discourse community when I order a “高麗菜” dish. In the Taiwanese-Mandarin community, “高麗菜” is frequently paired with “蒜炒” (sautéing with garlic), instead of the common “cabbage” and “coleslaw” association in the American-English community.

We can now begin to understand my experience of fragmented identity: when I walk through the Asian supermarket, it is not the information about the items that are recalled from their names, but the communities in which those names are intelligible.

Similarly, a trip to the local Chinatown, meeting Mandarin-speaking friends and family, or even simply walking past strangers conversing in Mandarin, can prompt a collision of discourse communities. Consider, for example, that not all cousins are equal in Mandarin. Their names can be less important than our places in the family: Which side of the family are they from? Are they younger or older than us? Are we the same generation? This information is crucial in determining the speech acts available in any given situation.

Certain acts, such as a demand, banter, or reproof, are inappropriate if my audience is senior to me. More generally, speech acts within a discourse community determine its members social habits, practices, lifestyle—in other words, their culture. Conversely, whether a speech act is performed successfully depends upon a given community’s ability to recognize and respond accordingly.

Why Mass Migration Disrupts Identity—and Culture

Being a member of a discourse community means subscribing to—or, at least, recognizing—a culture and its rules. For example, I would not mock (or banter with) an older cousin in Mandarin, but I am comfortable doing so with my English-speaking cousins. Yet during migrations, authority within displaced communities can be subverted when confronted with the language of the host community. As traditional authority figures—such as doctors, lawyers, and parents—find their speech acts unintelligible to the new host community, they also find themselves disempowered.

This subversion can also occur in a migrant family. I recall many Uber rides in New York with immigrant drivers who used to be prestigious professionals. They now speak proudly not of their own accomplishments, but of their children, who have often been the first to learn the speech acts of the host community. Besides state regulations that may not recognize their displaced professional licenses, these drivers can also be disempowered by a lack of fluency in the host language. 

The efficiency, specificity, and clarity of a speech act demonstrate not only the speaker’s membership in the discourse community, but also their expertise in its conduct. For example, one of the most reliable ways for me to demonstrate my American identity when told rudely to “go back home” is by responding clearly in English with an American accent. Conversely, my relatives who are unable to adopt an American accent continue to be branded as “foreigners” despite having lived in the U.S. much longer.

While the transfer of authority from one generation to the next is inevitable, linguistic fragmentation can accelerate this process, and it potentially destabilizes families by prematurely giving young children responsibility for their parents’ welfare. Will the 12-year-old Raju—at the age when I too migrated—and his 8-year-old sister Jerifa have to help their parents read the utility bills, pay taxes, and mediate parent-teacher meetings in Kannada?

When my mother first asked me to translate for her, I became conscious, perhaps even ashamed of my parents’ accents. At the same time, I felt legitimized in the United States by my growing fluency in English. Although the Mandarin discourse community and its social hierarchy were clearly staked out within our suburban three-bedroom house, the society outside was a linguistic battleground. Conducting business and errands in public spaces, I volunteered to be the spokesperson and opted to speak English with my own family. By doing so, I undercut their parental authority.

Filial struggles over linguistic authority are amplified in a mass migration. When individual families migrate across languages, the boundary between discourse communities remains mostly clear. Immigrants, such as myself, can code-switch easily. However, during a mass migration, those boundaries are blurred. Displaced speech acts continue to be recognized and responded when the full discourse community is relocated. Consider the Chinatown in Flushing, New York. There, an American English dialect may be rendered abnormal and stripped of its authority. At the boundary of such communities, especially for young multilinguals, the contexts in which to deploy one speech act or another overlap and become ambiguous.

To which conduct or culture, of which community, should I adhere? Which authority holds sway, and how do I navigate my other identities in each context? I’m not merely a son, a brother, an employee, a mentor, a cousin, and a friend; but a son in this community, a brother in that community, an employee of this one, a mentor for that one, a cousin and a friend in this and that and/or both.

This is the essence of a fragmented and disoriented identity: the displaced and host communities speaking to each other and wanting their speech acts to be respected. And it surfaces an unresolvable question: am I a Taiwanese American or a Taiwanese American?

A Metaphorical Identity

If the issue of identity stems at least partially from language, perhaps its resolution also lies in the realm of language. The doubling of contexts and discourse communities also indicates double meaning, in that a speech act in one community may be interpreted as another in a different community. In our everyday speech we tend to feel uncomfortable with these ambiguities, instinctively subverting all but one meaning at a time.

However, when we allow the meanings to coexist, such as in poetry, ambiguities become metaphors. Like a literary metaphor, we can learn not to demand absolute clarity by rendering other discourse communities unintelligible. We can learn to recognize the semantic overlaps in our speech acts as the foundation of the unity between the communities. We can learn to appreciate the fringe differences as opportunities for reinvention, but also let them fall away when necessary.

In 2014, I had a long conversation with a friend in Osaka who spoke predominantly in Japanese, while I spoke in English: each of us had little knowledge of the other’s language. Yet, I was surprised at how well we were able to communicate. I listened to loanwords and jargon, attended to his gestures, and also absorbed vocal tones and facial expressions. In return, I exaggerated my intonations, embellished my movements, and paused between utterances. It would be rather optimistic to say that we fully understood each other; nevertheless, we allowed our languages to overlap, letting go of the edges where exact translations fail.

In a world characterized by mass migrations, it is tempting to reinforce our identity by closing ourselves off. We may want to harden our linguistic and cultural boundaries through an exclusionary rhetoric appealing to safety, civility, and purity. However, it is precisely when we force our language and culture to be rigid and definitive that the fragmentation and disorientation of identity occur.

Metaphors can teach us the fluidity necessary to navigate multiple discourse communities. When I want my cabbage lightly sautéed with garlic or my 高麗菜涼拌 (cabbage coleslaw’d), I’m not violating the rules of American or Taiwanese authenticity. Instead, I’m allowing my identities to overlap, acknowledging that the semantic edges may not be coherent.

To borrow an analogy from Max Black, metaphors are like tainted glasses that veil over the night sky. When we look through them, new patterns—new identities—that are previously obfuscated can emerge. Raju and Jerifa will be asked to behave as Assamese some time, Bengali some other time, and they will need to learn good Kannada. 

But they can learn to be all these things and none of them, overlaying cultures and their speech acts to form new, coherent identities that belong to them.

Ken Hu is a Liberal Studies MA graduate from The New School for Social Research.