The problem lies in equating the racial, ethnic, national identity imposed on an individual by the state’s bureaucratic system, and that individual’s self-ascription. Group identity is not a natural fact, but a cultural perception. What we perceive about a person’s culture and language is what we have been conditioned by our own culture to see, and the stereotypical models already built around our own. Group identity is a question of focusing and diffusion of ethnic, racial, national concepts or stereotypes. Focusing is an anthropological concept referring to the process by which stereotypes are formed by selectively focusing on certain classificatory concepts prevalent within a certain discourse community. Diffusion is an anthropological concept that refers to the process by which stereotypes are formed by extending the characteristic of one person or group of persons to all, e.g., all Americans are individualists, all Chinese are collectivists.
E.g. A man in Singapore claimed that he would never have any difficulty in telling the difference between an Indian and a Chinese. But how he would instantly know that a dark-skinned non-Malay person was an Indian (and not Pakistani), and that the light-skinned non-European was Chinese (not Korean), unless he differentiated the two according to the official Singaporian ethnic categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others? In another context with different racial classifications he might have interpreted differently the visual clues presented to him by people in the street. His interpretation was focused by the classificatory concepts prevalent in his society. In turn this focus may prompt him, by a phenomenon of diffusion, to identify all other Chinese along the same ethnic categories, according to the stereotype “All Chinese look alike to me”.
Societies impose racial and ethnic categories only on certain groups: Whites do not usually identify themselves by the color of their skin, but by their provenance or nationality. They would find it ludicrous to draw their sense of cultural identity from their membership in the White race. Two Danish women in the US were startled when a young African-American boy asked them about their culture. Seeing how perplexed they were he explained that he was Black. They answered that they spoke Danish and came from Denmark. The boy did not use language as a criterion of group identity, but the Danes did.
European identities have traditionally been built much more around language and national citizenship, and around folk models of “one nation=one language”, than around ethnicity or race. But even in Europe the matter is not so simple. For example, Alsatians who speak German, French and Germanic Platt may alternatively consider themselves as primarily Alsatians, or French, or German, depending on how they position themselves vis-à-vis the history of their region and their family biography. A youngster born and raised in France of Algerian parents may, even though he speaks only French, call himself Algerian in France, but when abroad he might prefer to be seen as French, depending on which group he wishes to be identified with at the time.
Examples from other parts of the world show how complex the language-cultural identity relationship really is. The Chinese, for example, identify themselves ethnically as Chinese even though they speak languages or dialects which are mutually unintelligible. Despite the fact that a large number of Chinese don’t know how to read and write, it is the Chinese character-writing system and the art of calligraphy that are the major factors of an overall Chinese group identity.
A further example of the difficulty of equating one language with one ethnic group is given by the case of Sikhs in Britain. Threatened to lose public recognition of their cultural and religious distinctiveness, for example, the wearing of the Sikh turban in schools, Sikh religious leaders have tried to bolster the group’s identity by promoting the teaching of Punjabi, endogamy, and patterns of behavior felt to be central to Sikhism, including hair styles and the wearing of turbans. However, seen objectively, neither the Punjabi language nor the wearing of turbans is peculiar to Sikhism either in India or Pakistan or Britain.
Many cultures have survived even though their language has virtually disappeared (for instance the Yiddish of Jewish culture, the Gullah of American Black culture, the Indian languages of East Indian culture in the Caribbean); others have survived because they were part of an oral tradition kept up within an isolated community (Acadian French in Louisiana), or because their members learned the dominant language, a fact that ironically enabled them to keep their own. Thus, in New Mexico, a certain Padre Martinez of Taos led the cultural resistance of Mexican Spanish speakers against the American occupation by encouraging them to learn English as a survival tool so that they could keep their Hispanic culture and the Spanish language alive.