Domestic violence in a multilingual world

Non-English speakers’ access to emergency services in Australia is in the news again as a Melbourne man has been convicted of the murder of his wife. What makes the case particularly shocking is the fact that the victim, who was originally from Afghanistan, tried to call police a few days before the murder but couldn’t make herself understood because of her lack of English. She hung up while the operator tried to find a telephone interpreter and police never followed up. Previously, the victim had also spoken to a family violence officer and a health worker about her abusive husband:

Ms Rahimi, who spoke little English and communicated through an interpreter, had told a family violence officer and a health worker that she wanted to leave the marriage, but that she felt powerless, unsupported and fearful. (quoted from another newspaper article about the case)

So, the victim had sought help on at least three different occasions (family violence officer; health worker; telephone emergency service) – domestic violence help that is readily available in this country. However, she failed to gain access to the help she sought (and clearly needed as her murder tragically evidences). She failed to gain access to such help because her English was not good enough for that purpose.

The comments on the SunHerald site mostly offer an easy answer: she should have learnt English! I was rather shocked to find that – seemingly a world away – a report about a multilingual domestic violence hotline in Seattle, USA, draws exactly the same kind of hateful comments: the general tenor of the posted comments there, too, is that, rather than providing multilingual services, migrants should learn enough English so that they don’t need those services. Unfortunately, all of us in language teaching know that it’s not that easy and that the injunction to learn English can be completely meaningless, as it obviously was in Ms Rahimi’s case, who seems to have struggled on so many domestic fronts that attending English classes probably simply figured fairly low on her needs pyramid: when you are struggling to survive, a long-term investment such as language learning tends to be low on the list of priorities even if it has the potential to one day make your life easier – or even save your life!

Equal access to services, including police protection, is a fundamental human right and how to ensure equal access for speakers of other languages and speakers with limited proficiency in the dominant language is a fundamental human rights challenge of our time. A survey of the interrelationship between human rights and multilingualism is available from our resources section. In this paper, which will be published later this year in a new Handbook of Sociolinguistics, Kimie and I argue for a language‐ and communication‐focused approach to migrants’ human rights as they cross international borders and settle outside their countries of origin.

While language learning is centrally important, often there just isn’t the time or the ability; and in order to ensure equality of access, multilingual provision of services seems to be the only option. In the real world, there are many limits to that option – the availability of multilingual staff being a central one as we show with a number of case studies. However, even as we acknowledge the practical difficulties, at least we need to recognize that multilingual provision is the goal – rather than allowing the monolingual mindset to keep language as the last bastion of “legitimate” victim blaming. Piller, Ingrid, & Takahashi, Kimie (2010). Language, Migration, and Human Rights Wodak, Ruth, Paul Kerswill and Barbara Johnstone. Eds. Handbook of Sociolinguistics. London: Sage

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Kimie Takahashi

    Seeking assistance with the issue of domestic violence is complex enough for English speaking citizens. But when something like this happens to ESL migrants/non-citizens, responsibilities are often entirely put on them in a blame-the-victim manner. “She should have learned enough English” and its related discourses in the online space not only reveal the prevalence of the monolingual mindset, but also serve to reproduce and circulate it further.

    As you point out in this post, this is NOT at all an isolated incident where a loss of life or violation of human rights resulted from a lack of multilingual resources or assistance for non-English speaking individuals. One incident is one too many. I hope more language experts will take up the challenge to inform the public how language ideologies intersect with, if not fatally compromise, human rights, particularly of migrants with limited linguistic capital. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

  • xiaoxiao

    Your blogs have truly opened my eyes, and my understanding of the purposes and significances of language study has been deepened a lot since I began to access Language on the Move. This blog is again another precious gift I should feel grateful for. What I’m trying to say here may not be directly relevant to the content of this blog. But I feel an urge to express my feelings about all the contributions here: I have been greatly inspired by all of them even though I haven’t commented on them all:) It is no exaggeration to say that these blogs have rewarded me with not only academic knowledge but also the ideas of how to make consiencious efforts to change our world for the better as a linguist. Thanks much!

  • Ingrid Piller

    Thank you so much, Xiaoxiao, for your precious comment! It’s readers like you that make Language on the Move such a worthwhile and rewarding effort!

  • I think it sad that there are so many people with so little understanding or compassion for their fellow human beings. I would suspect that this poor woman was kept very isolated as isolation is a tool commonly employed by those who choose to abuse their partners. Keeping her isolated would likely have included making it difficult if not impossible for her to learn any English.

    It is sad that when this woman did reach out for help the system failed her with fatal results.

    I think more needs to be done to ensure that help is available to anyone who needs it and access to the information about where to seek help should be readily available to all communities. I also think police need to be more aware of what to look for and also how to connect up with the necessary services.

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