4 August 2011
One of the exciting and challenging ways in which New Zealand has changed over the past forty years has been the explosive flowering of linguistic diversity in our communities. Where once English was heard pretty well everywhere, at least in public, and those other languages were confined to the homes, the churches and the places in which those who shared languages other then English got together, now on the streets and in our daily lives we hear a rich symphony of many languages.
This change has been an uneasy one for New Zealand and from time to time various people have put forward the view that if only everyone spoke English we would all become a happy band of homogenous New Zealanders. Such a view is both delightfully innocent and dangerously ignorant.
When a native speaker of a language other than English learns English they do not become an Englishman or woman – they remain a Samoan, a Sikh, a Somali and so on. But they now have two languages in which they can be Samoan, Sikh and Somali citizen. It could be that in fact that these new skills allow for a confidence that intensifies the feeling of identity.
Where these languages are new to the English-speaking community, they add richness and it is the community that now has new skills and capabilities. But do we respond positively to this?
Not always. It is a tired old joke that has more than a grain of truth in it that if you speak two languages you are bilingual, if you speak many languages you are multilingual and if you speak one language you are English. Language learning has never been a strength of English communities so we struggle with linguistic diversity. We struggle to find comfort with indigenous languages in English speaking countries and we continue to believe that if you are going to be a valuable citizen you had better measure up in gems of English language.
Take for instance those professions that stamp arbitrary English language requirements on students and new citizens from language communities other than English. Nursing is one such example. If you arrive in New Zealand as a trained and experienced nurse you cannot offer your skills in nursing for the service of your new community until you have demonstrated a level of skill in English. Well is it more a case that you have to demonstrate the skill of passing an examination in English rather than actual communication. And you have to do this in an examination that a sizeable number of New Zealand English-speaking people would fail – not that they will be stopped from practicing. We simply assume that if by accident of birth you are English-speaking you will be OK. Of course the programs and tests and examinations that you have to pass are evidence of a certain level but it cannot be assumed that it is the level that we require of people from other language communities.
Why are we able to communicate with babies and toddlers easily and yet assume that adults require degree level English in order to communicate with us?
One of the explanations of levels of educational success (or more accurately, failure) for indigenous communities is the extent to which we have removed the first language and expected them to proceed on the basis of a second language. I suspect that this helps explain Maori student educational patterns over a hundred years and that of Pasifika students more recently.
Where students retain a robust first language that they to continue to develop and grow, they are able to learn a new language easily. Metalinguistic processes enable them to learn that new language by reference to their first language -in what ways is this new language the same as or different from the language I already know?
In Sweden, when a student from a particular language community enrols in an institution, that institution is required to find and employ a native speaker from that language community to support the student. This is very enlightened. We could do this easily as we have a rich vein of community members available who would be pleased to be employed in this way. Yes there is a cost but the cost of making education difficult for those who do not bring the correct language into the classroom is much greater.
I strolled down Queen Street in Auckland recently and noticed the rich range of languages I was hearing around me. Perhaps they were all tourists or students from English language schools. But I do hope that they were not. We are the all the richer for having a community characterised by linguistic diversity.
It is one of the great ironies of the modern world that in California, part of the country of E pluribus unum, half of the population cannot speak to the other half. The rift of monocultural obsessions is now complete.