Page 136 - Week 01 - Wednesday, 13 February 2008

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Mr Speaker, the United Nations does not choose the theme of its years without a great deal of thought, and the fact that this is the International Year of Languages indicates that, for a start, these things are important and that we are in danger of losing our multilingualism in our societies. Of course, the United Nations had exactly this intention—that parliaments all around the world would be taking this theme up and debating it exactly as we are here today.

Let us extend the conversation. I agree with much of what Ms Porter said, which is in the usual line of self-congratulatory speeches about this government. I acknowledge what the government is doing, I also acknowledge Mrs Dunne’s criticisms, because those things are also valid. Let us take it perhaps a little bit further, and then other speakers can take it further as well.

We are a globalised world; people move in it. It has taken our education department and our governments quite a while to realise that. With every successive wave of migration we are usually way, way behind the eight ball. Of course, we, as English speakers, are very privileged in this world. We know that it is taught as a compulsory second language in many Asian and European countries. We are too complacent about that. We travel, and we expect to be able to speak our language. We take our phrasebooks, and we often find we need them more than we thought we would.

We do seem to have a belief that it is up to others to learn our language and not for us to learn theirs. I call this a kind of chauvinism of language—it is also called monolingualism—but chauvinism takes it further. It is this idea of our language having superiority, and it is a kind of colonialism as well. But the thing is that we lose from it; it impoverishes our language and our lives if we deny the importance of other languages and do not recognise that English is made up from the roots of many, many languages. I hope it is continuing to be a developing language.

We know that English lacks the precision of meaning offered by other languages. French, which is my other language learnt through six years of high school—and getting very rusty now—has given us terms and expressions like “sangfroid”, “amour”, “crepe”, “plus ca change” and “merde”. Those words have their equivalents in English, but there is something about them that means just a little bit more than the English translation of them. Going from Mrs Dunne’s speech, perhaps English could be the language of politics, I am not sure. We say French is the language of love, and we have not yet identified where other languages fit into this spectrum.

I look forward to the continuing development of English where we use words from the Mandarin, Spanish and Japanese vocabularies routinely so that they just become part of our language. I think the fight to get Esperanto as the universal language is probably dead. There will always be people who advocate for it, but we probably have to work with the multi languages that we have, and that means learning more about them and understanding them.

Imagine living in Bougainville—a very small island probably not much bigger than the ACT—where there are something like 120,000 people and there are over 30 languages. That is pretty extraordinary. Of course, in Australia there were multi languages, all of them indigenous, before we destroyed them. As part of destroying

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