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The power of language

By Kim Fischer - 15 February 2016 6

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Canberra schools and community groups will be celebrating International Mother Tongue Language Day next week. The United Nations-sponsored event has promoted “linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” since 1999.

These days English is the standard global language of business, computing, science and travel. Around half of the pages on the entire internet are in English. Trying to preserve the “purity” of the French language as the l’Académie française has done since the 17th century can seem pointless or frivolous to English speakers who are at little risk of seeing their language disappear.

Personally, I believe it is important to recognise and respect how language impacts a person’s cultural heritage, identity, and place in society. Speaking in the language and accent of your parents and grandparents is a continuous and powerful reminder of where you come from.

Language not only changes how your brain develops, but shapes how you see the world. Many languages have words that are specific to their culture and difficult to translate such as:

  • Cynefin (Welsh) – a place where you feel you ought to be and belong
  • Ganqíng (Chinese) – how two people or groups feel about each other
  • Narragunnawali (Ngunnawal) – coming together in peace

Even the Australian “mate” has a depth to its meaning that is sometimes difficult to explain to a non-Australian.

This tight association between language and cultural groups also makes language highly political. Telling people that they either can’t use a language or must use a language is an act of power. For example, where there are two commonly used languages in a region, choosing to only recognise one of them for government business sends a clear signal about which cultural group is favoured. A more subtle social problem occurs when languages are associated with “higher” or “lower” classes. “Mandarin” Chinese literally means “the speech of officials”.

Grandchildren of immigrants nearly always adopt their native country’s language exclusively. However, the existence of this natural progression does not remove our fundamental right to choose what language we speak.

International Mother Language Day was created, in part, because of past tragedies where people have been abused, beaten, or even killed for seeking acceptance and recognition of their own language. The chosen day of February 21 commemorates the memory of several people killed by police in 1952 at a gathering of protestors lobbying for official recognition of their native Bangla language.

Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Chris Bourke noted in a speech commemorating International Mother Language Day in 2014 that past Australian governments had previously tried to stop indigenous Australians from speaking their native language as part of policies of assimilation. These policies deepened feelings of dispossession and isolation from their culture among the Stolen Generation.

There is also good evidence that speaking your mother tongue as well your country’s official language improves parental relations and boosts educational outcomes.

As a result, over the past 25 years the Australian Government has funded programs to re-connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with their native tongues. Professor Jakelin Troy has worked extensively to document the mental and health benefits of these programs. Schools also now have programs that encourage students to be proud of their own language and to make use of it in a classroom environment.

To finish on a lighter note, here is a clip from A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry’s obsession with language and its relationship to society and culture are on full display:

Do you think it is a good thing for Australians to speak more than one language? What experiences have you had with multilingual situations?

Kim Fischer is an ACT Labor candidate for the seat of Ginninderra in the 2016 ACT Legislative Assembly election.

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6 Responses to
The power of language
dungfungus 7:46 am 16 Feb 16

rubaiyat said :

HenryBG said :

I’m guessing Charlotte did not grow up bilingual and attending an Australian public school. Not much tolerance among our future bogans for people caught speaking a foreign language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rjDwm4PMJY

I recall a dinner party I went to a few years ago. Everybody around the table was fluent in 2 of 3 shared languages, and had some facility with the third. The conversation swirled around, hopping from one language to another.
I remember thinking how normal this situation is anywhere in Europe, and how utterly alien it would be anywhere in Australia.

All to do with the circles in which you mix. It may be unusual for you but not for many of the enormous number of people in Australia who were born overseas or whose parents were.

I still remember long nights spent on trains in Europe chatting to people I had just met. Flitting between one language and another, searching for a word, or a better way of saying it.

New border, new language, a wonderful wide open world out there. Not quite Tuggeranong, but then what is? 😀

I could respond to that in several languages but I won’t embarrass you..
Hey, your slow European train trips are about to be replicated here in Canberra on a super-streamlined tram capable of doing 70kmh!

rubaiyat 5:39 pm 15 Feb 16

HenryBG said :

I’m guessing Charlotte did not grow up bilingual and attending an Australian public school. Not much tolerance among our future bogans for people caught speaking a foreign language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rjDwm4PMJY

I recall a dinner party I went to a few years ago. Everybody around the table was fluent in 2 of 3 shared languages, and had some facility with the third. The conversation swirled around, hopping from one language to another.
I remember thinking how normal this situation is anywhere in Europe, and how utterly alien it would be anywhere in Australia.

All to do with the circles in which you mix. It may be unusual for you but not for many of the enormous number of people in Australia who were born overseas or whose parents were.

I still remember long nights spent on trains in Europe chatting to people I had just met. Flitting between one language and another, searching for a word, or a better way of saying it.

New border, new language, a wonderful wide open world out there. Not quite Tuggeranong, but then what is? 😀

Masquara 12:18 pm 15 Feb 16

Charlotte Harper said :

I was astounded by this story late last year about a woman who abused another woman on a train because she was speaking on her mobile phone in a language other than English. Astounded that she could be so rude, that anyone could think being bilingual was a bad thing, and that she could think that swearing the way she did is acceptable in front of children (don’t play the video of the incident while your kids are in the room). I can only assume this woman has never travelled to a non-English speaking country and has not read widely, because surely otherwise she would see the benefits of speaking more than one language.

http://www.news.com.au/technology/online/passengers-come-to-womans-rescue-after-racist-rant-on-sydney-train/news-story/e06155dea3662268410c6dc393c61555

I would love to be fluent in another language and am seriously studying one language and using the Duolingo app to build on lessons taken in earlier years in three others.

We’re encouraging our children to study their grandparents’ native language with classes outside of school, but also Asian languages at school given Australia’s increasing ties with China, Indonesia etc.

A smattering of several languages is better than nothing and at least allows cultural understanding and some basic courtesy in language. Only immersion programs such as the one at Telopea will lead to fluency though unfortunately. I know uni graduates who majored in French and can only comprehend, not speak, in French. Let alone high school graduates from standard French programs!

Charlotte Harper 11:44 am 15 Feb 16

I did not grow up bilingual, Henry, but I did study French and German at Narrabundah College, so you’re wrong on that count. The language program at Narrabundah was strong because of the International Baccalaureate program and flow-through from the French stream at Telopea.
You’re right about the Europe/Australia comparison. They have such a huge geographical advantage. I’ve been to France once for three days and Germany once for two. Not enough time to get much practice.
Being native English speakers is also a disadvantage when it comes to learning other languages from their speakers because they are so often able to speak better English than our bumbling attempts at their tongues.

HenryBG 10:48 am 15 Feb 16

I’m guessing Charlotte did not grow up bilingual and attending an Australian public school. Not much tolerance among our future bogans for people caught speaking a foreign language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rjDwm4PMJY

I recall a dinner party I went to a few years ago. Everybody around the table was fluent in 2 of 3 shared languages, and had some facility with the third. The conversation swirled around, hopping from one language to another.
I remember thinking how normal this situation is anywhere in Europe, and how utterly alien it would be anywhere in Australia.

Charlotte Harper 10:09 am 15 Feb 16

I was astounded by this story late last year about a woman who abused another woman on a train because she was speaking on her mobile phone in a language other than English. Astounded that she could be so rude, that anyone could think being bilingual was a bad thing, and that she could think that swearing the way she did is acceptable in front of children (don’t play the video of the incident while your kids are in the room). I can only assume this woman has never travelled to a non-English speaking country and has not read widely, because surely otherwise she would see the benefits of speaking more than one language.

http://www.news.com.au/technology/online/passengers-come-to-womans-rescue-after-racist-rant-on-sydney-train/news-story/e06155dea3662268410c6dc393c61555

I would love to be fluent in another language and am seriously studying one language and using the Duolingo app to build on lessons taken in earlier years in three others.

We’re encouraging our children to study their grandparents’ native language with classes outside of school, but also Asian languages at school given Australia’s increasing ties with China, Indonesia etc.

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