25 September 2009

Lingua Franca

I asked Stinkypaw how Canadians feel about being a bilingual country and she wrote a post over on her blog to answer. She mentioned in passing that she thinks people who migrate to Quebec should understand that it is a French province and should endeavour to learn French rather than English. Marius and Barb related that back to what they think about Hispanic migrants in the USA who 'choose' not to learn English or 'refuse' to learn it, and that got me thinking.

When there is an enclave of language speakers, their density and volume predict the longevity of their language. If there are few of them and they are widely dispersed, the language dies out quickly. If there are many of them, and they congregate together, their language is more tenacious, but for it to survive they have to be self-sufficient. An example of this is the German speaking enclaves in places as wide-spread as Hungary, Massachusetts and the Barossa Valley. While they were self-sufficient and had little contact with those outside their community, their language hung on. But with modern connectivity that kind of isolation is near impossible, and now they struggle to maintain any of their language.

I found the whole conversation ironic. Because if your ethnic minority is small, the language dies out in around three generations. There is only one generation that stays monolingual in the old tongue. Their lives are facilitated by their bilingual children, and they struggle to communicate with their grandchildren who are monolingual in the new tongue.

But if your enclave is big enough and self-sufficient enough to resist that - well, you get Quebec.

Interestingly, Canada has made both English and French the official languages; so they have a unique situation accommodating for both. It certainly raises an expectation that every Canadian should be fluent in both; but in practise it is in Quebec that French is expected, whereas English is expected everywhere else. This is pretty much explained by history; it is the default through right of conquest. Similarly, although they don't have official languages, the default in the USA and Australia is English through right of conquest. It is expected that the Indigenous people acknowledge that conquest by learning English, and it is expected that those who who come after acknowledge the precedence of the ruling wave of conquerors by learning their language - English.

Back in England and France, the lands of the conquerors, colonialism has come back to bite them on the arse. There are large numbers of migrants coming in from the colonised lands; and while the colonials stuck to their own languages, the migrants who have arrived in England and France have done the same thing. The same people who had a horror of 'going native' now have the expectation that every migrant community in their country should go native. When you meet someone who refused to learn Urdu after four generations living in Pakistan, it's pretty amusing to hear them complain about how Urdu is being taught now in British schools because of the migrant Pakistani community.

Actually it's difficult for me to regard fears about multiculturalism with anything other than amusement. Of course, I am a monolingual first-generation born Australian. One generation back, my family is trilingual. I am a product of the assimilation era so I have little patience with the rhetoric of assimilation.

I've heard people complain about hearing other languages spoken on the bus. I've also heard people confess that it's because they fear those people are talking about them - and maybe they are. That's never a nice thought, but I guess it's something I'm used to; growing up in a family that I couldn't understand meant there were lots of times I knew I was being talked about in a foreign language. It's no different to the possibility of English speakers talking behind your back; you either trust that they won't be nasty or you don't.

I have a different reaction on the bus; I am wildly envious. I envy anyone who is bilingual. My one regret is that my family did not teach me their language. But in not doing so, they gave me another precious gift in its place: the ability and motivation to learn how to communicate with people who barely speak my language. Both Aussies and foreigners have commented on my ability to communicate with people whom no one else understands. I adore and embrace multiculturalism for I see no reason now to keep Australia British, and I cannot realistically see us giving precedence and dominance back to the fractured Indigenous languages and cultures which are left. I think the best outcome here is the breaking of barriers and the sharing of knowledge, to let the melting pot create a fusion culture which hopefully is more suited to the ecology and global position of Australia than British culture has been.

In Australia, although there are hundreds of languages spoken, there is no one language that is a serious linguistic threat to English. In the USA, however, 1 in 4 people are Hispanic. That's an awfully large minority. And since English is only the main language due to right of conquest, I think that people who feel uneasy about the increased use of Spanish in the USA are worried that the tables are turning, they are losing the privilege of being in the majority, and that one day they will wake up and find English has dropped off the signs and their grandchildren are monolingual Spanish speakers. And maybe they fear that Hispanic people won't be accommodating to them.

Because here's the thing I've seen in Australia. We are multicultural, but we still have our prejudices and traditional English schema. And the people who blend in quickly and easily are the Europeans, no matter which generation. The people who are accused of being segregationist and not assimilating are the ones who look different - the ones, incidentally, that are shunned most, either consciously or unconsciously. Through my lifetime, the majority of immigrants to Australia have been European, and I have seen them welcomed, approached, included, and helped with their English. During that time the Asian, Middle Eastern and African migrants have been ignored and excluded, yet somehow expected to improve their English and become part of Aussie culture while only speaking to other excluded people. When I have talked about this with people of these minorities, they have always spoken with sadness about their isolation from mainstream Aussie culture. I have been asked by Arabs 'where is a friendly neighbourhood to live in?' and not been able to tell them, because the truth is no one would be particularly friendly to them. I have been assured by Muslims that they are happy to go to pubs, since they realise that a large part of Aussie culture happens in pubs, but no one invites them, and they are likely to be harassed if alone and unable to speak English well. And ultimately they stick to their own kind out of a basic human need for community and friendship which is not being met by the community at large.

I think we shun them, due to fear or ignorance or ancient enmity, and it's easy to do that when there are very few of them. But we create our own enemy by othering them, and then we fear they will take over and our lack of connection or understanding will be our undoing. So we demand they get to know our terms because we cannot understand them on theirs.

At its heart, I think this debate exposes the great lie of democracy - that what counts is the will of the majority. The USA has shown over and over again that the will of the people only counts when it is in line with the will of those who hold the power. When other nations have democratically elected governments that do not suit the will of those who hold the power in the USA, they very undemocratically enforce their will on those nations.

And I think this is the case inside the USA today. In the past, the majority have been aligned with those who hold the power - WASPs. But if a new group become the majority who aren't in line with the WASPs, the will of the majority may be for an Islamic Republic, or a Hispanic dictatorship, or a Communist regime. And those who are happy with the status quo and hide behind the fact that it's the will of the people, will have to face the fact that what they believe in is not, in fact, the will of the majority, is not, in fact, democracy at all, but is actually their own personal agenda, their own comfortable privilege, their own position on the side of those who hold the power.


Stinkypaw said...

How big does one ego have to be to thinnk that because someone is talking a language they don't understand, must mean it's about them? That is bad and the lamest excuse to use.

My husband says the one big goof off they did when they conquered Canada was to allowed QC to remain French. In a way he's right, that would have avoid all the troubles and fighting we're going thru because of French vs English.

cinnamon girl said...

Yeah I thought it was a pretty stupid excuse too. And I know when the tables are turned and I meet Aussies overseas, I talk to them in my native language, so I don't see the logic in being bothered by other people doing that here.

Your hubby could be right; even with a place as big as Quebec it sounds from what you've written that the French almost has to be consciously maintained as it's so easy to just let everything drift into English when you're surrounded by it and most of you can speak it.