by Brigitte Lambert
Wide-eyed and earnest, a five-year-old tells me he speaks two languages besides English, and pulls a Lilliputian French-German dictionary from his jeans pocket. ‘I can say ‘bitte’ and ‘danke’ and ‘bon jour’ and ‘au ‘voir’. Naturally, I’m impressed. Clearly he already knows something about the value of being polite in different languages.
I think of some more high profile Australians who have demonstrated the value of multilingualism in the international spotlight: a prime minister and his diplomatic use of Mandarin; a national team captain, whose use of German in press interviews during the 2006 world soccer finals made a very favourable impression on the locals; and an archbishop, who drew the cheers of the major pilgrim groups on World Youth Day, by welcoming each of them in their own language – Italian, Spanish, French and German.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you don’t mind some Rieu-style enthusiasm, a big round of applause!
Of course, not everyone with an extended language repertoire will be destined to make such public overtures, nor necessarily aim to do so. Often the benefits of multilingualism are located in the family, in talking to Nine, Apó and Yiayiá, and staying connected to cultural roots. For many, school languages provide the gateway into new worlds of experience, as travelers through foreign countries, literature and film, and yes, there can be careers attached. Yet others enter the multilingual adventure through living overseas and wanting to forge a deeper relationship with their temporary compatriots. Above all, as research repeatedly shows, language learning is good for the brain, developing mental flexibility and lateral thinking, particularly when this language contact occurs from an early age. But importantly, language learning can – and should – also be fun.
‘It’s interesting to see how different languages are put together’, comments a teenager studying Japanese.
‘To me each language has a kind of music, a rhythm’, says her friend, comparing Italian and Greek.
Australia’s linguistic diversity includes Aboriginal, community and sign languages, some 350 languages in all. However, the value of this vast resource remains unacknowledged by government planners, and not even the prime minister’s example has as yet translated into palpable motivation for revitalizing the languages-in-education curricula beyond Asian languages. Their vision of how to maximize Australia’s linguistic potential is decidedly limited. Even speaking a language other than English may still be perceived as ‘showing off’, no less by politicians who really should know better. Such attitudes are at odds with the image of Australia as a tolerant and progressive society that the rhetoric on government websites presents to the world. Not once is multilingualism mentioned as a value in the booklet describing life in Australia to prospective immigrants, an irony indeed, given that when I last checked, this publication was available in twenty-nine languages.
Who then fans the flame of multilingualism in this country? Thankfully, there are parents, teachers, community groups and other interested parties who also have a vision for their children and the society in which they live and are committed to passing on their language, their passion and cute bilingual dictionaries. Put your hands together for the people!
That little boy is still learning to read and can’t yet decipher the unfamiliar words in the pocket book, but he appears to treasure his gift. I only hope his budding language interests will flower and flourish so he too can build bridges, grand or small, in whatever ways will be open to him.
This text is an amended version of the article published in ‘Kultur’, magazine of the Goethe-Institut in Australia, in October 2008.