This post was first published on Sophie Masson’s Feathers of the Firebird blog.
Rejoice! Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff has just been published in English for the first time in over 100 years. I loved this book and I love that new generations of English speakers are getting the chance to follow the fabulously intrepid Mikhail through the Wild West of Russia’s Far East.
But the fact remains that translation of foreign language books – be they new masterpieces or old classics – is a tiny proportion of the English literary scene, as Strogoff’s translator Stephanie Smee has discussed. And globally, native English speakers are rarely able to enjoy literary works in the original language. Nowhere is this more true than Australia, where multilingualism, already the minority, is in steady decline.
If language, at its heart, is about humanity, as author Elizabeth Little writes, then Australians are losing their ability to understand the world.
Being bilingual, I sometimes forget multilingualism, the norm for much of the globe, isn’t the experience of most Australians. Though we’re a multicultural nation, most people consider English to be enough for our needs and even within bilingual families, bilingualism is declining across the generations.
Are Australians just not interested in languages? Is it too hard in a geographically isolated, monolingual society? What’s the point in learning languages anyway, apart from an exponential increase in the to-read pile?
Imogen Weafer, a retail assistant in Darwin’s Casuarina Square shopping centre who uses Japanese in her work, certainly wasn’t interested in languages when she younger, despite her grandmother and mother being bilingual in Latvian and English.
‘My grandma taught my mother, but I wasn’t interested. I regret that now,’ she says.
Miss Weafer considered that she grew up in a society that didn’t value foreign languages.
‘I lived among generation after generation of farmers who all speak English and nothing else, and think Sydney is overseas,’ she said.
She didn’t consider learning another language until going to Japan after year 11. She chose to stay in Japan rather than study Japanese at school: ‘In school, my Japanese teacher was a French teacher,’ she said, unimpressed. It’s a common problem: more than 100 schools discontinued their languages program between 2003 and 2006, specifically due to a lack of qualified staff.
But English isn’t Australia’s only local language. Growing up on the edge of the Barossa Valley, Ingkerreke Commercial project manager Daryl Thompson (pictured below) didn’t consider German a foreign language. He grew up with it, going to a high school where many students had German heritage. Though all students had to learn to German, by the end of high school he’d learnt more from his classmates than from the teacher.
‘I could swear at people’ he said, ‘and they can understand.’
Despite only speaking English at home and never having taken a language course, Mr. Thompson has since learnt parts of nine other languages. He learned these on building sites around Australia by talking with co-workers. ‘The Australian construction industry is a multinational industry,’ he says. ‘Italians and Greeks do concrete, Vietnamese do the tiling, Croats and Russians do the gyprocking. Knowing a bit of their languages shows that you are interested in them as a person; they are more amenable to do what you want them to do. People that don’t make an effort won’t get as far.’
Sure, many find the idea of learning a language confronting. CSC Adult Night Classes Japanese teacher Mikiko Kawano explains, ‘just like losing weight, you have to do it for a long time to see a result.’ This largely explains why those who beginning learning at a young age become more proficient. However the idea that it’s too hard to learn other languages doesn’t hold with Mr. Thompson. ‘That’s just excuses,’ he says. ‘In today’s era of technology, of internet, easily purchasable online media, audio and video, there’s no reason why people can’t learn.’ CDU Indonesian lecturer Nathan Franklin agrees, finding that the opportunities to learn languages are all around us. ‘They are walking past us in the streets,’ Dr. Franklin says, ‘they are working in the shops.’
The latest census counted almost 400 languages spoken in Australia, including over a hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Most of Australia’s language skills come from recent immigrants: 87% of Australian secondary school students will have dropped out of language courses after two years or less. For those who are studying languages, Australian students spend less time learning than any other OECD country.
I don’t come from a bilingual family. Nor did I learn my second language overseas. The reason I speak French is that my school went against the trend. Telopea Park Public School in the A.C.T. has an agreement with the French government to import French national teachers to teach in a bilingual system from primary school onwards. And it is one of the only schools in Australia producing entire classes of fluently bilingual students every year.
O.K., so maintaining the bi-national relationship was difficult at times. I’ll never forget the expression on my French teacher’s face when a quarter of the secondary student body protested the testing of nuclear weapons at Mururoa atoll by refusing to stand for the French national anthem during assembly. We experienced first-hand the impact of international relations at the personal level. But isn’t that, after all, what language learning is all about?
Against the trend of declining bilingualism elsewhere, my new home in the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of multilinguists in Australia, and it’s rising. I’ve come to the right place, then!
Eva McRae-Williams, Senior Researcher with Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (pictured above), finds exposure motivates others. She says, ‘In Darwin you hear five different languages in the supermarket. Warlpiri, French, Thai, Yolngu, Sudanese.’ These languages are economically important as tourism and remote community work are some of the biggest employers in the Territory.
Motivation is notoriously lacking in native English-speakers. In French there is a saying: a man who speaks three languages is trilingual, a man who speaks two languages is bilingual, a man who speaks only one language is English. Though English is the language which unites us, it’s also isolating us, Dr Franklin finds, because it reduces the compulsion to learn other languages. ‘The Western mentality is that everyone needs to learn English, as English is the lingua franca of the world,’ Dr Franklin states. Whereas ‘[English-speakers] don’t need to learn another language to get a job’, here, as well as overseas, ‘students and business-owners know they need to speak English and they learn out of necessity’.
However, in a global market place, sharing a language can markedly increase bilateral trade and reduces tariffs, according to research. While historically this has been a boon for trade with the UK and the US, seven of the Australia’s top ten two-way trading partners are now countries where English is a second language, including China and Japan, as well as the vast majority of our fastest growing markets, including Indonesia and India. That can put English monolinguals at a disadvantage at the negotiating table. The rise of Asia may threaten English’s dominant economic position – and that’s a problem for many Australian businesses.
For Dr. Chie Adachi, speaking as Linguistics Lecturer at the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education, the value of language learning is broader than its purely economic context. ‘If you aren’t learning a language because you don’t see a purpose in it, you are missing the point,’ she says. ‘It’s about changing the way you think.’
New research by a team at the Stanford University is finding more evidence supporting the idea that languages affect how we think. Lera Boroditsky’s team has found that which language you use affects concepts as varied as colour differentiation, spatial orientation, direction of time and causality. Dr. Boroditsky’s findings make sense for Jack Wang, a Chinese-born administrative assistant. ‘Being able to speak another language gives you a different perspective on the world around you,’ he said. Growing up in censorship-rich China, that was ‘mind-blowing’. Dr. Adachi agrees, ‘it allows you to think more broadly and in different ways, which can be a rare experience.’
Ms. McRae-Williams found being a minority English speaker in spaces shaped by Aboriginal languages a transformative experience, saying ‘it opened up another world for me.’ Like 80% of
Australians, Ms. McRae-Williams spoke only English at home before going to Ngukurr in the Northern Territory, where Ngukurr Kriol is the local language. ‘Kriol seems to have a smaller vocabulary of words but there are important subtleties when you use those words and who to,’ she says. ‘Even though there are many English sounding words, they can be used differently, with different connotations and meanings. English speakers might think they are understanding what the Kriol speaker is saying but they are not understanding them, really.’ For example, she found ‘that unlike English language it is rare for people speaking in Kriol to use the word “I” or “myself”, rather “mela” is used which means “we” or “us”. Her experience of how cultural perspectives and knowledge are embedded in language gave her a new insight into centuries of intercultural misunderstanding.
The misunderstandings over land are a prime example. In Pitjanjatjara, you don’t say ‘what is that place?’ but rather ‘who is that place?’ Land is related to people like a grandfather or aunty is: land is a “person” in the Pitjanjatara world view. The idea of “owning” your grandfather becomes nonsensical; the idea of abandoning it, impossible.
Given the historic and ongoing lack of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the national and international consequences of wider intercultural misunderstanding, the question ought not be why learn a language, but why not?