In Praise of a Plural World
The colonised know more about their masters than their masters know about them, said Melissa Lucashenko at the Brisbane Writers Festival (link here). Linda Jaivin makes a similar point in Found in Translation: “Given the amount of cultural knowledge and information that is embedded in language, they – the fluent non-native speakers of English – will almost certainly know more about you than you do about them.”
Thus the emergence of English as the global language is not lucky for native English speakers. Rather, by appearing to reduce the need to learn another language, it robs people of the benefits of such study. Jaivin says, “Learning a language challenges you to see the world from a different and sometimes uncomfortable perspective – it broadens the mind more surely than travel, and at the same time promotes cross-cultural empathy and understanding.”
Jaivan makes a powerful case for the following conclusion: “Every year 12 student in Australia should be studying a foreign language; every arts degree in university should have a foreign language component. Publishers need to consider how to prise open their lists in order to let more translation in. If we are going to be not just pluralistic but cosmopolitan, not just trading with the world but in genuine communication with it, we need to move beyond the easy ride of vehicular English.”
Jaivin is a skilful writer: her essay is light and witty yet strongly argued with research leavened by enlightening anecdotes, so that when readers reach the above declaration they will find it hard to disagree.
In 1968, 44% of Australian year 12 students studied a foreign language. Currently only 12% do. Jaivin chronicles the rise of the idea that foreign language study is unnecessary because English has become the global language, and also because of machine translation. She demolishes both of these reasons. In particular she attacks the neoliberal argument that we should do away with anything that doesn’t have an immediate economic benefit. Such an argument is nonsensical even by the narrow cost-benefit calculus of neoliberalism – even the greediest capitalist should be able to see the benefit of understanding others as much as they understand you.
Jaivin focusses on Mandarin as a language that should be studied much more widely, given the rapidly growing power of China and its proximity to Australia. Just as strong a case can be made for Indonesian, a language which has suffered a drastic decline in Australian schools and universities at the same time as Indonesia is becoming a regional power with a strong democracy and a fast-growing economy. Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, a former teacher of Indonesian, has posted an impassioned review of Jaivin’s essay and described how she and her colleagues “battled outright hostility, inadequate funding and shameful neglect from regional authorities, school administrations and local school communities whose attitude was that there was no value to be had from learning about other cultures by learning their languages.”
Apart from hurting our economic interest, such attitudes ignore the wider value of learning other languages: what it can teach us about ourselves. It opens another window onto our lives and helps us understand other ways of being human. I am grateful to the teachers who, despite my lack of any gift for languages, helped me learn enough Indonesian to enable much deeper experiences during my visits to the country and to develop friendships, some of which have endured since my first journey to Indonesia in 1973. Without these teachers and friends my life would have been much the poorer.
Another enthusiastic review of Found in Translation comes from Sue at Whispering Gums, who affirms Jaivin’s belief that “a culture does not grow just by talking to itself.”
Linda Jaivin shows us how to remedy a major deficiency in Australian education and culture. Is anybody listening?