Cabramatta, NSW, Australia

Cabramatta, Australia

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.

Author Sheila Pham

More posts by Sheila Pham
  • khan

    Dear Sheila Pham,

    Thanks for the post. It is very interesting and triggers thought on a fundamental issue of language ideology, the official proclamations and the practiced language policies. Apart from a few countries in the world, most of the countries have one or two officially declared national languages, majority of the countries have one national language despite the fact that each country in the world except for Bangladesh perhaps claims itself the promoter of multilingualism, multiculturalism . We also know that official acceptance is one thing and real promotion of languages is another thing. I think it is very important to see that though the spirit of nationalism is claimed to have withered away, the discourse of nationalism is very much pervasive: one language, one nation, a shared history, territory. Though the discourse is very evident in different spheres of life as your post has illustrated it so very well, it is presented in a different language and through surface-level celebrations often making a false impression of multiculturalism. Above all giving the opportunities to learn languages other than the powerful language of the world would mean loads of investment without quick returns!


    • Sheila Pham

      Hi Khan, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. Yes you’re right that most countries only have one or two officially declared languages, and most are probably just as bad as Australia – if not worse – about officially promoting multilingualism. What I’m saying is that it’s not so much “a false impressions of multiculturalism”, but this idea of “let’s all be friends through food/sports/smiles/etc”, which will never have the same power of connectedness as knowing a little, or a lot, of the languages of the people around you.

  • While we don’t have something akin to Harmony Day in the U.S., your entry resonated with me, particularly your observation about “superficial community building.” This comment made me think of what’s left of German-ness in the U.S. Pretty much it’s been watered down to lederhosen, cheesy German music, beer, bratwurst and big fat, inauthentic pretzels. As a German-American (my father emigrated to the U.S. in his early 20s), I don’t identify at all with this dominant representation of German culture, which is pretty much the only one most Americans “know.” Totally erased is the German language, which happens to be the most important part of German culture to me, though, actually, more broadly, multilingualism for me and my kids is what matters most to me. Call me an elitist if you will, but I strongly believe actively lived and actively practiced multilingualism is so much deeper and richer than the superficial veneer of food, drink, dress and music. It really frustrates me when I see academic scholars seek to separate language from culture, then fail completely to specify what, exactly is left, when language is gone. More broadly, these scholars (I won’t name them here, but there are a lot of them) inevitably fail as well to explain what parts of culture matter, and which don’t. Finally, they inevitably fail to address the key power issues of who decides what components of culture do, and do not, matter, based on what criteria and with what implications for whom.

    • Sheila Pham

      Hi Christof, I completely relate to what you’re saying. I don’t think it’s elitist at all – I think what you’re saying is based on the lived experiences of people like us living in New World societies like the US and Australia. For me, what essentially makes me feel Vietnamese is my ability to speak. If I had the same family relationships, food, activities etc but no fluency, I think I’d feel even less connected to the culture. That’s not to deride the effort of preserving some strand of culture through food, say – I think it’s a kind of glue for families and communities and an acknowldegement of the past…but we should see it for what it is. The issues you raise about the separation between language and culture are fascinating and I think perhaps those academics are speaking from abstraction rather than their own lived experiences? I don’t know who gets to determine what parts of culture matter; I guess it wildly varies even across languages, about who has the cultural capital. Some countries have ministries; others are still tribal in nature so depends on local leaders. At any rate, my take on this issue is that ultimately what matters universally across cultures are relationships, and the things that are an inherent component of relationships such as languages.

  • khan

    Thanks Christof for your comment. I am infact grapling with the scholarship that tries hard to severe culture-language links. I really find it difficult to see culture and language as separate.


  • Zainab M Aslam

    Dear Sheila Pham
    Thank you for sharing this interesting article. I can completely relate to what you mentioned about ‘superficial community building’ since I too belong to a country which has one national language and one official but its soul, the people, are multilingual. In Pakistan at various levels such cultural days and shows are organized in the name of promoting pluralism but unfortunately the message which the programmes mean to convey doesn’t reach everyone’s heart since the such programs are generally only looked at as venues for fun and entertainment. Moreover, I also agree that mere acknowledgement of multilingualism and providing platforms for bringing together people of different languages perhaps is not enough. Rather, trying to be able to communicate in languages besides your own to come closer to the speakers of different langauges, creating a bond with them, and understanding them is what is required.
    Zainab M Aslam
    Karachi. Pakistan

    • Sheila Pham

      Dear Zainab, so interesting to hear your perspective from Pakistan – I wouldn’t have thought that the issues we have in Australia around multilingualism would have some similarities to the experience over there. I really like what you said about “creating a bond” with others through language – that’s exactly what I was trying to say 🙂

  • Thanks, Sheila, for sharing this post! Like you, my response to Harmony Day is conflicted. On the one hand, I agree that the initiative is positive and so feel slightly mean for not taking to it more. On the other hand, in addition to the limitations you’ve mentioned, there is also the fact that the onus for Harmony Day is always on non-Anglos. Anglos are somehow exempt from showing off costumes, dancing their national dance or preparing their traditional food (for obvious reasons, a cynic might say … 😉
    What this means is that Anglo culture becomes the default position, with 364 days per year allocated, and the others get Harmony Day. A couple of years ago, I observed a Harmony Day function in a primary school here in Sydney. An invitation had been sent out to children “with a national background” to wear their “traditional national dress” to school on the day. There was the predictable national dresses that no one wears in everyday life anymore – neither here in Australia nor in the country of origin. However, there were also two Asian-looking boys in T-shirts and shorts announcing their dress as “contemporary Australian.” The audience reaction was rather ambivalent: some laughter, some silence, comparatively little polite clapping …
    @Christof and @Khan: I have a chapter in my Intercultural Communication book tracing the divorce of language and culture in intercultural communication research to US domination of the field and its development in US military training.

    • Sheila Pham

      Thanks for your comment Ingrid. I completely agree with what you say about Anglo culture being positioned as the default. The onus is always on non-Anglos and it also makes the Anglo kids uncomfortable too for not having a “culture”. The concept of diversity HAS to include the dominant culture too, and not just cordoning off all the minorities – reinforcing those with some sort of traditional culture as being the Other while at the same time cutting off Anglos from their own migrant pasts.

      • Thanks, Sheila! How about the element of gender bias and the way it intersects with culture in celebrations like Harmony Day? I have to confess: I used to dread the day in Australia. I felt that there was an expectation, both explicit and implicit, that I as a “good Japanese woman” would cook sushi at home and bring it to workplace on Harmony Day. I don’t like cooking and don’t really cook at home. My lack of interest in cooking aside, cooking decent sushi in Sydney can be expensive – I’d no way want to spend $50 – $60 for the day:-(
        An interesting comment by Ingrid re the 364 days spent on the Anglo culture as the default position. Remember her post about International Women’s Day?
        A colleague of mine in Bangkok told me that she shared it with her colleagues at her work place and her male colleague said, “What about International Men’s Day! It’s unfair!” One female colleague apparently replied, “You have 364 days to celebrate that.” Politics of celebrations are indeed multidimensional.

  • vahid

    Thank you, Sheila, for this thought-provoking post. I really liked your suggestive phrase “superficial community building.” best

  • Nicole

    I agree that eating food from different countries is OK, but it will not help much in really understanding different cultures. Learning more foreign languages is a nice idea too, but extremely time-consuming. The average Australian will not want to spend hours and hours studying a foreign language with lots of irregularities. Most people who do learn a foreign language stay at a very basic level which is OK if you travel to a country and want to ask where the train station is, etc, but it will still not enable you to have a deep conversation. How about promoting a neutral language that is easier to learn than national languages? I am thinking of Esperanto. More than 300,000 people are currently studying it with the excellent free Duolingo website. Furthermore in 2 days there will be an Esperanto conference in Indonesia. Several Australians have already arrived and can start to get to know Indonesians in a way that “normal” tourists don’t do.