Ways of seeing

By January 27, 2016Recent Posts
January 26, Australia Day: whether you are celebrating depends on your perspective (Source: news.com.au)

January 26, Australia Day: whether you are celebrating depends on your perspective (Source: news.com.au)

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.

Wishing for a White Christmas in an Australian summer: cotton wool in a Sydney garden

Wishing for a White Christmas in an Australian summer: cotton wool in a Sydney garden

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.”

Is this a deer or a deformed kangaroo? (Source: sevenhillsschool)

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.

Best wishes for a new year of explorations in multilingualism, language learning and intercultural communication!

Best wishes for a new year of explorations in multilingualism, language learning and intercultural communication!

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.

ResearchBlogging.org Piller, I. (2015). Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/17447143.2015.1102921

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
  • Paul Desailly

    Never ever miss Ingrid’s essays coz she ain’t misleadin’ or Miss Leeden. Her notions of fair play and justice hit the mark once again

    Correcting myopic and sanitized views of history requires first and foremost on the individual’s part – an independent investigation of truth devoid of any prejudice, i.e. moral or spiritual qualities Perverted misinterpretations of history on the part of paid historians or those appealing to populism with mega books sales uppermost in mind set the scene for an historicism which hinders a much needed transformation of society

    Such disastrous results ensue when one fails to absorb the views for example of our indigenous peoples that groupthink sets in. Groupthink’s most egregious examples arise when leaders in religion, in academia, in the arts and media and in politics receive free rein that circumvents most criticism whether constructive or not.

    The observant among the rank and file are obliged to intervene with proofs lest disasters occur as for example in the former in which the likes of .’Reverend’ Jones lead a thousand souls to mass suicide-murder in Guyana and in the latter in which we reap the whirlwind : ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’

    Groupthink is the antithesis of an independent investigation of truth

  • Alexandra Grey

    Often when I tell people I’m researching language rights & state activity in relation to minority languages in China, people assume the Chinese state is only interested in “cracking down” or “oppressing” minorities. A very clearly conditioned “way of seeing”! Of course, I too (& all of us) have ways of seeing and I’m not doubt better at reflecting on some than others, but I do both despair & enjoy the chance to explain that in many ways modern China was set up with core structures to protect minority languages and ethnic polities. Those didn’t/don’t necessarily always work well, but the reasons why not are more interesting than simply a sinister, homogeneous state desire to eradicate diversity. Just reading May’s great article “Language Rights:The ‘Cinderella’ Human Right” (Journal of Human Rights, 10:265–289, 2011) in which he explains the Constitutional establishment of the Catalan autonomous region (an “autonomias” ) in Spain in the 70s; in many ways the 5 autonomous regions of the P.R.C. are similar rather than different, predating Spain’s structure by decades. Such similarity is rarely “seen” in the literature. Simpler for authors to dismiss “communitarian”/”collective” rights regimes as too different to bother discussing, I guess. This isn’t a criticism of May’s article, which covers a lot very well in a short piece, but longer books like Ricento (ed.) 2015 Language Policy&Political Economy have space but don’t deeply consider non-liberal democracies’ language rights.

    • VinN

      I think Chinese people may tend to have some bias upon policies, and sometimes they don’t trust their government. I have a learning experience in a Minzu University (South west University of Nationalities), and I see how they are pride of protecting minority culture. The university set up a museum for relic of ethnic group. They also develop products that facilitate minority language speakers. I saw both traditional wedding dress and smart phone with minority language operating system there. The official language is mandarin and simplified Chinese characters, but researchers and the government still work on minority culture preservation.