Here in Australia we celebrated our national holiday yesterday. Australia Day marks the end of the summer holiday season and as everyone heads back to school and work, Language on the Move is coming back from our break, too. Welcome back, everyone!
Each year on January 26, Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and the day when Governor Arthur Phillip planted the British flag in what is today Sydney. Our national day thus enshrines a very specific view of Australian history as British history.
Whether you consider the anniversary of the establishment of Australia as a British colony worth celebrating or not depends on your perspective. At “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day” rallies across the country aboriginal ways of seeing Australia and its history were highlighted. What marks the beginning of the Australian nation for some, is the beginning of genocide, dispossession and colonization for others.
January 26, 1788 is no exception. What we see always depends on our beliefs and prior knowledge. However, not all ways of seeing are created equal: some perspectives are undergirded by the full weight of a civilization and society – as is Australia Day as the official national holiday – and others are relegated to the fringes of society – as are Invasion Day rallies. Many other perspectives are not socially validated and never make their mark at all.
As a land in the southern hemisphere dominated by northern ways of seeing, mismatches between the world around us and ways of seeing that world are perhaps particularly obvious in Australia. Early settlers were prone to mostly notice absences: they didn’t see Australian landscapes in their own right but noticed how they differed from British landscapes. Sometimes, the consequences of these nostalgic ways of seeing were disastrous, as in the infamous case of the introduction of rabbits to allow for some European-style hunting.
These northern lenses have not gone away but are today reinforced by the global dominance of northern ways of seeing. For instance, in the southern hemisphere Christmas obviously falls in the summer. But here, too, people dream of a “white Christmas.” In the absence of snow, some people decorate their yards with cotton wool to achieve the look of a northern Christmas.
We especially notice the importance of perspective when ways of seeing are particularly whacky – note cotton wool in Sydney front yards in December – or when they go against the dominant cultural grain. My personal favourite example of the latter comes from my daughter, who once described a deer as “a deformed kangaroo.”
Our prior knowledge and experiences make us see the world around us in specific ways. If this is true of objects in the real world such as snow and deer, it is even truer of the intangible world of ideas – the meaning of January 26, 1788 – which are, by their very nature, less clearly delineated and much more subject to interpretation.
The ways in which we see language, culture and communication are no exception. However, while all ways of seeing are embedded in prior knowledge and beliefs, this is rarely admitted. Dominant ways of seeing have the privilege of remaining hidden as particularistic perspectives and come to constitute the truth of an object.
In a recently published article about “Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism” I explore how the perspectives of English monolingualism have come to dominate global understanding of linguistic diversity. That article is available for open access through the Journal of Multicultural Discourses.
Here at Language on the Move we are dedicated to exploring a multiplicity of perspectives on language and communication in the contexts of migration and globalization. Dominant ways of seeing are a crucial part of the power relationships that make us see some ways of speaking and communicating as more worthy than others.
Please join us for another round of explorations in the social meanings of linguistic and communicative diversity as we embark on a new year of research blogging in sociolinguistics. If you have not yet done so, make sure you never miss a post by subscribing to our blog in the bottom right-hand corner of this page.
Piller, I. (2015). Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/17447143.2015.1102921