Who decides where the boundaries between languages are drawn? And is your language 'foreign'?
This piece was originally written for Demos Journal, and was first published here. It also features four terrifying hyperlinks.
tend to throw up walls upon encountering ideas we don’t understand.
Spectrums of experience are broken down into boxes; identities have
their variations chiseled away until they become square-shaped pegs for
square-shaped holes. Thus, with boundaries delineated for the categories
we have made, we can file the unknown neatly away, and finally relax in
the presence of a known quantity.
should therefore come as no surprise to hear that the very tool used to
define these categories – that of language – has also been broken down
by humans with all the subtlety of a small rampaging child taking on a
Tower of Babel made of alphabet blocks.
is estimated that 6,500 languages are spoken in the world today, and
within that number exist many more dialects, creoles, and regional
varieties. Yet there is a certain futility in trying to organise
languages when one considers their slippery, ever-changing nature. Take
Catalan, for example: is it a language or a dialect? And is your opinion
on this affected by your definition of either of these terms, or is it
swayed by your emotional connection to Barcelona? Besides, where can
languages, dialects, or any other category of communication be said to
begin or end, when the very existence of spoken words is based on
thousands of years of cultural and linguistic interchange?
the world’s languages sharing snippets of vocabulary, grammar, turns of
phrase, and even onomatopoeia, they arguably remain defined and
understood by their differences. Encountering a language one doesn’t
understand is to run up against a brick barrier of communication: you
can’t break through it, so you sort of stare mutely at it instead,
feeling vaguely disconcerted. Indeed, the very term ‘foreign languages’
owes its existence to the notion that languages we don’t understand are
‘foreign’ – beyond the boundaries of our own experience. Through this
propensity to ‘other’ that which we don’t understand, we end up shutting
ourselves inside the little box of language which we have labelled as
our own, be that ‘English’, ‘Australian English’, ‘Australian Public
Service English’, or what have you.
also worth questioning whether perception of the ‘foreign’ nature of
other languages is amplified within the mindset of English speakers. As
English enjoys its era as the world’s lingua franca (such irony
that that expression literally refers to the “Frankish language”), and
reliance on technology grows, native speakers of English can grow
complacent in language-learning. English and the West have become a
primary reference point for much of the world, and English-speakers
receive repeated affirmation that speaking English is somehow the norm,
simply through seeing the majority of the world striving to learn our
tongue. Subsequently, for all that we Australians hit the linguistic
privilege jackpot merely by virtue of being born here, there is a
flip-side: the need to interact with other cultures and languages is
repeatedly presented to us as non-essential. We don’t need to interact
with them; it’s them who interact with us. This is
evident even at a worldwide university level, where English is becoming
increasingly common as the preferred teaching language, and scholarships
enabling study at Anglosphere universities remain ever-prestigious and
the real losers in this situation will ultimately prove to be us,
because while everyone else is out there learning a second, third, or
even tenth language – and gaining cultural intelligence to boot – we’ll
be retweeting articles about the wonders of translation technology. And
while that technology may have many positive uses, it is unlikely to
enable an individual to understand language and culture, entwined as
they are, as well as somebody who has prioritised actual interaction
with a worldview outside of their own. In Europe, for example, or more
mobile areas of South-East Asia, multilingualism is viewed as such a
necessity that people just make it happen, whether through education
systems or self-motivated study, and whether they enjoy it or not.
Schools have compulsory classes in second or third languages, and
students leap at the opportunities to study or work abroad, in part to
improve their multilingual proficiency. Such skills are prioritised
because they are valued.
we don’t see multilingualism as essential in part because of our
geographic position: Australia, like many Anglophone nations, doesn’t
border onto a non-English-speaking country. Indeed, Australia
technically doesn’t border onto anything. Yet we are a large island in
the Asia-Pacific – a region of enormous linguistic and cultural
diversity, as well as potential – and from a cultural understanding
perspective, we are currently a bit of an awkward friend. It’s
regrettable for everybody.
redressing this problem is far from evident. The fields of language and
cultural studies necessarily advocate engagement with others, and thus
acceptance – precisely the sort of mentality worth fostering within
wider Australian society. One might have hoped that the ANU, therefore,
as a leading educational institution, would do its part in promoting the
importance of language-learning in Australia with regard to regional
relations. Making cuts to studies of language, history, and culture of
the Asia-Pacific with the finesse of a villain in a slasher movie (see here, here, here, and here), however, is a curious response to this issue, and unlikely to engender a solution.
we must hope that in spite of setbacks, individuals – if not all
institutions – will increase efforts to look outwards, and to embrace
diversity with respect to both culture and language. Such a mentality
would likely develop the framework through which one sees the world;
similarities would become every bit as visible as differences (though
both can exist and be acknowledged without one or the other consequently
that note, to people who look beyond the horizons of their own country
and linguistic sphere (such as the aforementioned polyglots who learn
out of necessity) the concept of the foreign language is diminished in
magnitude. It loses its mystery when faced with the understanding that
apparent enigmas can be decoded. Its ‘foreign’ quality – and the
intimidating aspect of this – shrinks in significance to anyone willing
to seek out the points that different languages have in common.
is therefore a shame that we cling with such vehemence to notions of
difference, separation, and foreignness when discussing languages; after
all, differences between what we define as languages are far from
insurmountable. Indeed, rather than seeing languages as existing within
separate boxes, or even within separate families (Romance, Germanic, and
the like), perhaps it is time that we began to view them as existing in
a perpetually developing state of interconnection. Maybe we should try
adjusting the radio frequency before denouncing the words as
After all, the confines of language – along with language itself – are ultimately all inside our own heads.