Languages matter

intercultural celebration
The theme for this year’s NAIDOC week was ‘Our Languages Matter’. It celebrated the richness and resilience of First Peoples’ languages and the important role of language in connecting Aboriginal people to their cultural identity.

Michael Walsh is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Australian Languages and Honorary Associate at the Department of Linguistics, University of Sydney. According to Dr Walsh: “It is thought that around 250 distinct [Indigenous] languages were spoken at first (significant) European contact in the late eighteenth century. Most of these languages would have had several dialects, so that the total number of named varieties would have run to many hundreds.”

The First Peoples of Australia are multilingual, as are many of the Second Peoples. It is obvious that a multicultural Australia means a multilingual Australia.

Though Australia has no official language, English is regarded as the national language of Australia and is spoken in the home for close to 72 percent of the population, according to 2016 census. The census also identified more than 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes.

More than one-fifth of Australians speak a language other than English at home. After English, the next five most common languages spoken at home are Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Italian.

Language and culture cannot be separated. Language is the key to understanding culture. Cultural knowledge and concepts are carried through languages.

Writing about the importance of language during NAIDOC week, editor of Eureka Street Andrew Hamilton said: “Culture includes our relationship with our own history, the customs and symbols of our parents, and the songs and stories that make up our heritage.

Today, only 18 Indigenous languages are spoken by all generations of people within a given language group, and even these languages are endangered. Approximately 100 Indigenous languages still exist in some form in Australia, though many of them are in an advanced stage of endangerment. Small numbers of older people are the only full speakers of these languages. Preserving the Indigenous languages of the First Peoples of this country is critical.

Language is often a central issue in postcolonial studies. During colonisation, colonisers usually imposed their language onto the peoples they colonised, forbidding natives to speak their mother tongue. In some cases, colonisers systematically prohibited native languages. Many writers educated under colonisation recount how students were demoted, humiliated or even beaten for speaking their native language in colonial schools.

To insist that one has to speak or be proficient in the language of the dominant culture is linguistic imperialism. Language is used as a colonising tool as one of the ways to ensure that the minority groups assimilate the values of the dominant culture. Undoubtedly, language is a critical factor in identity giving or removing. And so to lose one’s mother tongue is to lose one’s culture and identity.

Andrew Hamilton went on to state: “Language is much more than a means of communication. It is an emblem of our tribe, marking out those who are strangers. Language shapes how we interact with others. To say that our languages matter implies that no one language is given absolute precedence over others. Diverse languages may have precedence in different areas of our lives.”

In April this year the Turnbull government announced an overhaul of the Australian citizenship test. Prospective Australian citizens will need to be fluent in English, have four years of residency, adhere to Australian values, and a demonstrated capacity to integrate.

A tougher English language test will exclude people from disadvantaged backgrounds and advantage those from English speaking countries. Louisa Willoughby, a senior lecturer at Monash University, said the new requirements ignore the fact that learning a language as an adult is ‘difficult’.

In a press release, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton outlined that the English test that applicants will be required to pass will involve elements of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

“There are questions about the White Australia Policy [re-entering] through the back door” according to Anna Boucher, a senior lecturer in public policy and political science at Sydney University.

A few people within the Uniting Church in Australia advocate that before we receive a minister from overseas as a minister of the Uniting Church, he or she must demonstrates proficiency in English, both written and spoken. I strongly object to that requirement.

Often ministers from overseas are invited to minister in language-specific congregations because they can speak the particular language required. At the 13th Assembly in Adelaide the issue of English language was discussed. It was decided that the Synods, in accessing an applicant in relation to language, based their decision on “the language proficiency of the applicant relevant to the context” (12.8 (d) (v) of his or her ministry.

Let me end by saying that I always encourage my colleagues who have limited proficiency in English to learn the language. I tell them it’s important if they want to live in Australia and continue to minister within the Uniting Church.

However, to require them to have proficiency in English before we accept them as a Uniting Church minister is putting the cart before the horse. It’s saying to them: “You are welcome to ‘work’ in my house (Church) but before we accept you as a member of this household, you must learn to speak the language of the dominant culture.”

A multicultural church is a multilingual church. All languages are accepted and no one language ought to be more important than others. Every Sunday in the Uniting Church across Australia, vast numbers of languages are used to praise and worship the triune God. We should celebrate that God understands all languages and is not confined to one.

All languages matter, each and every!

Swee Ann Koh
Director of Intercultural Unit

Is the proposed citizenship test reminiscent of the White Australia policy?

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