Mind your languages

By Hamish Keith In Commentary, Cultural Curmudgeon, Culture

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In New Zealand, according to the Royal Society of New Zealand, at least 160 languages are spoken. That august body thinks paying no attention to this is a lost opportunity. Each language represents an ethnicity and a culture. As a result, Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet. That should be a plus for a city intending to cash in on that ubiquitous urban buzzword, vibrancy.

Auckland Lantern Festival: part of the city’s vibrancy. Photo/Natalie Slade/NZ Herald

Grey Power, on the other hand, thinks more than two ethnicities is one confusion too far. It would like to see a limit to what some members see as an unfettered flood of jibber-jabber – a language test at border controls at Albany and the Bombay Hills. This is an ancient tale.

I have never seen the point of the Tower of Babel story. According to Genesis, survivors of the Great Flood all washed up in the land of Shinar. They all spoke the same language. They had a quick get-together and decided to build a fabulous new city with a great big tower – a convention centre was planned for later. They made their bricks and got to work. God spotted them at it and was not pleased. Like some celestial Earthquake Minister, He descended from above and confounded their plan. They were chased away from Babel and obliged to speak different languages. By this simple intervention – by chance or design – the Almighty set in train countless millennia of war, ethnic cleansing, diaspora, holocaust, massacre and every other kind of lethal mischief a confounded humanity could devise. If there was any reason to this, it escapes me.

Rational or not, we are stuck with this heavenly mess. The Royal Society thinks we should make the most of it and adopt a national strategy for language. Grey Power, along with many monolingual citizens who are neither grey nor powerful but almost certainly white, think sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting “Happy Place, Happy Place” might make it all go away.
Of the two, the Royal Society’s argument is the most compelling. We live in a post-Babel society. It is not a reality such artificial constructs as biculturalism can do much to accommodate. If there were ever any truth in that idea, it is not one that does anything to value the bits in-between – the true drivers of an evolving, vigorous multicultural society.

The Royal Society is right to define a national drive towards bilingualism as an essential first step. But along with that we need to pick away at the ingrained myth that the national culture is some temple of unchanging identity and untouchable sacred cows. New Zealand is a land of travellers. We all came from somewhere else or value ancestors who did. We have become the accumulation of all the diverse stuff those travellers brought with them and bring with them still.

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