Saturday, September 05, 2009

REFLECTION: On speaking English

This piece was published on the Aussie Mossie blog on Sunday 17 September 2006.

The Dooley’s Catholic Club at John Street Lidcombe was the seen of a generational clash on Friday night.

Tony Abbott was addressing an ethnically and religiously mixed audience. He told them it was simply impossible for someone to fully engage in Australian life unless they could speak English.

Some elderly members of the Lebanese community sitting at the front shouted “rubbish”. And the rest? Particularly the youngsters?

I was seated up the back of the room. Nearby were young Lebanese Aussies, including girls wearing traditional hijab. Seated directly in front of me was an Australian of Bosnian heritage. She joined many who cheered and clapped. The rest nodded in agreement.

I admit I applauded as well. But now I am having second thoughts.

Yes, it’s self-evident that inability to speak and communicate in English limits a migrant’s own personal ability to reach their full potential. I remember a sermon I heard at my childhood mosque in Surry Hills. The imam quoted the Prophet Muhammad who said: “When you settle in a land, learn the language of that land so that you are not deceived.”

Deception can take numerous forms. It can be as subtle as misunderstandings. It can also take more sinister forms. The common element in all forms of deception by language is being pushed to the margins.

Young people of non-English speaking background don’t want to be marginalised. They are tired of seeing their faith or heritage represented by people unable to communicate in the language most people at school or college or uni or work speak. It angers me when I see imams and Muslim leaders appear in media unable to speak proper English or needing interpreters.

Young people from non-English Speaking background are also tired of seeing their parents hampered and marginalised due to poor language skills. Many feel humiliated at watching their parents struggle in simple tasks and at having to constantly act as translators.

I learnt about my Indian heritage from my mother, a highly educated woman with postgraduate qualifications Indian literature and language. My mother completed her studies in some of the finest institutions of the sub-Continent.

But when she arrived in Canberra in 1965, my mother found her strong abilities in Hindi and Urdu dialects couldn’t assist her in even buying a loaf of bread at the O’Connor shops. Were it not for a kind Anglo-Indian Hindi-speaking Jewish woman, my mother would have been lost.

My mother had a policy that we only spoke Hindi and Urdu at home. She wanted to make sure her children could speak her first language. She was different to other Indian mothers who learnt English by encouraged their children to speak English at home. Now these mothers can speak English a little better than my mother. But their kids cannot speak a word of Hindi and Urdu, and hence miss out on enjoying their parents’ culture.

I am able to speak my mum’s first language quite fluently, but there are times when we unnecessarily end up in arguments because we have misunderstood something she has said.

My mother has always wanted to feel a sense of belonging. It hurts me when, despite her best efforts, she finds communicating in English so difficult. However, her inability to learn the language has its own background.

My mother’s situation was almost identical to the situation of the mother of an old school friend I’ll refer to as Igor. Both Igor and I were in the same class at a Sydney Anglican private school. Our mums were both educated in their own countries (in Igor’s case, Yugoslavia). Both performed manual labour jobs in factories. That was the only way our parents could afford to send us to our school.

Migrants who cannot find time to learn English are not necessarily lazy or unwilling to integrate. In my mother’s case, she had young children to look after. She, like Igor’s mum, wanted her children to have the best education money could buy. She sacrificed her time and energy to perform manual labour instead of taking time out to learn English to the degree of fluency her children have.

A few nights back, I was at a dinner of young professionals. An elderly Lebanese Muslim lady was seated at my table. She was the only person of her generation there. She spoke very little English and tried to express her resentment at the PM’s Muslim-baiting. The only item she conceded was of the need for migrants to learn English.

This woman found it hard to find time to learn English as she had to bring up 6 children. All her children have graduated from university and are working in a range of professions – law, accounting, engineering, medicine and education. Her children are participating in mainstream Australia in productive ways that make this non-English-speaking Australian proud.

Migrants who today refuse to take time out to learn English could regret their decision tomorrow. However, these migrants compensate for their language difficulties. They can still make a sterling contribution by bringing up their children to work hard and become model citizens. However, my own experience suggests this can only work in an environment where parents and children are able to communicate in a shared language.

UPDATE: Here is a comment left by dezhen on the original blogpost:

Great point, and one that is overlooked in amongst all this nonsense. Whenever I hear these guys speak, I am reminded of Captain Picard on the Starship Enterprise "Make it so." Unfortunately it doesn't happen like that in real life. Repeating the same thing over and over again does not make it so, there are other issues to consider as well - but they don't make such catchy slogans.

And here is another comment left by Dean:

My grandfather came from Mozambique to Melbourne in 1924. All his life he struggled with English but he refused to teach his children Portuguese. 'When in Rome,' he said. My grandmother, an Anglo Anglican, was very understanding when I married a Japanese. "Granny doesn't mind it if I don't talk," said my wife when she came over for lunch. "I like just sitting with her. She understands about people who don't speak English fluently." My granny was a trooper: she married a migrant but when he started seeing other women, she left him. "I don't need him anymore," she said.

I don't think it is necessary for migrants to speak English. What is more important is that they be able to mix with people from different ethnic backgrounds. Staying cooped up in a ghetto is the worst thing because it allows you to become complacent, and prevents you from broadening your horizons. Maybe council-sponsored English classes for migrants are the answer.

Words © 2006-9 Irfan Yusuf

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