Greg Dickson writes:
A Facebook-‘like’ or YouTube-‘thumbs up’ to the recent Fully (sic) commenter, who, like us, believes Australians should be more linguistically aware. The commenter gave the example of when Dr. Haneef was taken in for questioning on charges of terrorism, the interviewing police learned he’d been using Urdu to talk to his brother over MSN Messenger. The police interviewers hadn’t heard of the Urdu language and this automatically made Haneef seem more suspicious to them.
It’s been recognised by many that Australia is a cripplingly monolingual country, plagued by the ‘monolingual mindset’ held by a majority of Australians who speak only English. This is in contrast to the minority of us who are bilingual or multilingual. It’s kinda funny but kinda sad, when you compare Australia with other countries who handle rampant multilingualism with aplomb. It seems that many monolingual Australians perceive the ability to speak another language fluently as something akin to a magical power. It’s a party trick that can be demanded of bilingual freaks at will. “Say something in language X. Go on, do it! Listen everyone, so-and-so is speaking language X!”. Or it’s a magical power used purely for evil as in the Haneef example given above.
It’s disappointing though, that Australia is naive regarding languages. In Europe, where language borders and nation borders are never too far away, bilingualism and multilingualism is associated with managers, professionals, educated people and upstanding citizens. Here, bilinguals and multilinguals are associated with migrant populations, Aboriginal people, language freaks and other nutjobs who don’t quite fit in. What a pity.
I saw evidence of the marginalisation of bilingualism yesterday when I gave a short training session on cross-cultural communication to a group of 13 people who work in tourism and aviation. One of the first exercises was to see how much language diversity there was in the group. One woman put up her hand proudly and said she spoke English, French and Mauritian Creole. Another was a bit more reluctant and said he grew up speaking Croatian. After a pause, one of the four pilots sitting in a close-knit group, quietly admitted to being a Russian speaker. I thought afterwards, why wouldn’t the bilingual people in the group shoot up their hand and proudly announce their other language/s? Well, the answer is fairly easy – because our nation doesn’t value languages other than English very much.
I just wish it wasn’t that way, because looking at other somewhat-sensible nations, there’s no need for us to be this way.
Author’s note: Upon re-reading this post, I realised that I treat a fellow Fully (sic) poster as a party-trick-capable language freak. Either I’m a hypocrite and should be more considerate, or the fact that someone can speak and be literate in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Burmese, English, German and French is genuinely quite freakish.