Last week an email was sent around my office about our upcoming Harmony Day celebration on 21 March. The email suggested that to mark the occasion, interested staff could bring in food from their culture and engage in sporting activities, because this year’s official theme is Sport, ‘a universal language’.
While eating ‘ethnic’ food is pleasurable and playing sports with people from different cultural backgrounds is undoubtedly positive, it got me thinking that the Harmony Day initiative has severe and rather obvious limitations. Without unduly criticising well-intentioned strategies to promote multiculturalism in Australia, this type of superficial community buliding echoes a previous blog post that suggested that the way French is taught in schools focuses on “stereotypical and pseudo-cultural information about France such as the fact that the national dress includes the beret or that French people love pancakes”. (Incidentally, I can vouch to having an extremely similar experience with learning Italian from 1990-1992. I learnt more Italian being on holidays in Rome for three days than three entire years at my Sydney primary school, such was the nature of the poorly developed curriculum.)
Official communiqués always mentions that Australia is home to a population that speaks almost 400 languages between us, and given this sexy statistic, why is that in 2012 national initiatives around multiculturalism still focuses on superficial engagement with the actual cultural and lingustic diversity of Australia? One way to switch to more active engagement is to promote multilingualism and encourage the study of languages of significant cultural groups here. Imagine an Australia where a much wider cross-section of society had some knowledge of languages such as Arabic, Greek, Mandarin; how different it would be if people were able to engage more actively with other cultures – and perhaps even develop more empathy and intercultural competence through the process of learning languages.
Australia, as an imagined monolingual nation, has a poor understanding of the multilingual reality of many parts of the non-English speaking world, where people often learn the languages of the country they are living in, as well as languages of neighbouring countries. Yesterday I visited a local and humble Asian grocery store in Sydney’s very culturally diverse suburb Marrickville. During the 15 minutes I was in the store, it became apparent to my ears that the family running the business had spoken at least three different languages – English (from living in Australia) , Vietnamese (the national language of their previous home) and Cantonese (their home language). Furthermore, I found out that they also spoke some Teochew (another minority in Vietnam they interacted with) and could also speak Khmer because they used to live near the border with Cambodia. As another example, last month I spent a day in Cabramatta, another culturally diverse Sydney suburb, and fell into conversation with a Thai business owner who, since migrating to Australia, had made the effort to also learn some Vietnamese because that was the dominant language of business in the suburb.
At a time when language studies of neighbouring Indonesian has dropped to critical levels, the official focus should shift from feel-good and passive multicultural celebrations, to strategies that emphasise learning community languages, which could actually have more of a lasting impact to further tolerance and understanding within Australian society and far beyond.
Harmony Day is celebrated on 21 March 2012 and coincides with the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.