Image: “The Disconnect” mixed media on linen, by Emma Louise Pratt. Reuse by permission of the artist.
A few days ago I watched a short video on a news feed of women in the UK reacting to David Cameron’s insistance that immigrants should “learn English or leave”.
I particularly liked one reaction of an immigrant, which was to state that the English had never made much effort to learn the languages of the countries they had colonised. It was my default reaction to “like” this, given my New Zealand experience of what colonisation does.
In the late nineteenth century, Māori children were told to leave their language at the door of the classroom and only speak in English at school. It was reinforced with admonishments and corporal punishment in some schools. Parents wanted them to have the economic and social advantages of being educated in and through English. It came with a cultural price.
As a language teacher, we still insist that learners try only to use the language they are learning in the classroom and not fall back on their mother tongues – luckily for most, corporal punishment is a thing of the past!
Learning the language of the host country, the invaders or the economically dominant
Being forced or coerced into learning the language of the host country, the invaders or the economically dominant is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Romans who could, were having their children educated in Greek. It gave their children access to superior education and the economic benefits that trading with the Greeks and any greek influenced area afforded.
My own Great Great Grandfather learnt his lessons in another language -French. He would have spoken his indigenous Jèrriais tongue in everyday life on the island of Jersey outside the classroom. Jèrriais*** is an ancient form of Norman language which falls under the umbrella of Romance Languages. He also studied German, and was at home in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. As his father was English, he could speak English fluently too which wasn’t so common. Lucky for him though, as he was going to need it. Native Gaelic speakers of the Hebrides even into the 1970s were instructed in English as the vehicular language. Children were expected to know English by the time they started school.
After eleven years spent in a country where the main language spoken is not my mother tongue, speaking from my personal experience, failing to try to learn that dominant language, politics aside, only leads to cultural and social isolation. And very importantly, it severely restricts your liberties.
I am an immigrant. Living on the edges of a society at times it seems. When local friends ask me about how I get on, I liken not being fluent, to living with a level of hearing loss. I am lucky to have reached a sufficient level to manage daily life without trouble now. It’s taken time, and I can see that the edges of this host community where I live, ebb and flow like a tide. Sometimes I feel fully integrated, other days like a complete outsider.
Not fully understanding a language limits how you can function in a new community. It makes dealing with a bank, the tax department, buying a home, a car, getting a licence, studying, all harder. Here, I’m more likely to be cheated. And imagine not knowing your rights? Your rights and those of your children to health care, to safety? Often, because you can’t engage, other people end up doing things for you. Your personal sovereignty is handed over.
You become so accustomed to the loss, you stop noticing it.
This daily helplessness with dealing with a world outside your own community grows and takes you over. Even after all these years, and with a good command of the language, I still cannot function at the level of my native tongue in terms of wit and quickness, nuance and shades of meaning. The verbous and eloquent person that I might be at the dinner table in my own native language has become a less talkative one, well practiced at nodding, ohhing and ahhing in agreement with conversations, so deftly covering up the fact that I haven’t actually understood 100% of it, I hardly notice. My habit of filling in the gaps with soft gauze is refined, as an illiterate person is at hiding their disability. Defaulting into the state of disconnect .
A much loved mentor of mine once said, and I often remind myself of it, that a body of water that is fed by no stream and goes nowhere, becomes stagnant.
How can I reach out and know another world or point of view if I haven’t got the language skills to engage? We may find the language to be the language of the occupiers, but if it is the only vehicle to freedom, what choice have we?
The problem, when I see people being forced into learning a language, is that they won’t learn it well, and certainly won’t love it. I’ve experienced it as a teacher first hand. It’s heart-breaking. Language is a taonga**. I side with immigrant woman against David Cameron in this. How many languages do you speak David?
In Spain, young children, my four year old daughter’s age, are attending English language classes after school. Much like their ancestors of the Roman Empire, parents hope to give their children an advantage in the competitive job market, and it’s obligatory to have an upper intermediate level of a foreign language to be able to graduate from university in the European Union. The wheels of history turn.
My Great Great Grandfather left his island at age fifteen to go to the Australian gold fields with his parents. He continued to study languages and became a teacher, moving to New Zealand. The final language he became fluent in and loved was Te Reo Māori*. He died in 1913.
*A national census undertaken in 2013 suggests there were approximately 125,000 speakers of Māori (around 21 % of all Māori and around 3 % of all people living in NZ). However, the survery Te Kupenga undertaken by Statistics NZ in 2013 suggests there were approximately 50,000 (11 %) Māori adults who could speak Māori well or very well. Many of the very fluent speakers of Māori were likely to be over 65 years old.
Moriori, an earlier indigenous language is now extinct and has not had any native speakers since the 1930s (though the language has been recorded reasonably extensively in written form).
**taonga – treasure
***The latest figures come from the Jersey Annual Social Survey issued on 5 December 2012.- 18% of the population could speak some Jèrriais words and phrases with more than 7% of those over 65 being fluent or able to speak a lot of Jèrriais. Two-thirds of adults said that they could not understand spoken Jèrriais, but more than a quarter are able to understand some, and 5% more can usually or fully understand someone speaking Jèrriais. 4% of people said that they could write some Jèrriais, although under 1% could write fluently. Just under a third (32%) said that they could understand something written in Jèrriais.