The Value of Minority Languages
Languages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.
We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.
At the base of many proposals to standardise language use is a fear of cultural decline, of making a city, a state or a country something other than what it was, or what we might have imagined it to be. The majority, often the vast majority, of the populace in this sense is always right and righteous. But in a broader sense that prejudice denies the influence that languages have on each other, and how the use of minority languages within a social space can improve the majority language, make it more accessible in new circumstances, as the world changes and as words and phrases, ways of thinking, cross once impenetrable barriers. English has lasted so well precisely because it’s the bastard language of Europe, first dragging in threads of Latin, French, Norse, German and Dutch, and then Hebrew, Arabic and a smattering of Chinese, Tagalog and others in its lurching, spluttering imperial expansion into the world.
Thankfully, the Nashville referendum was opposed by the mayor and the state governor who, after all, have been given the obligation to represent every person within their respective jurisdictions. Regardless of their personal convictions, they would have been compelled to view the situation from the outside in, to understand how a language enters into and remains in a context rather than to presume that the context and language are inseparable, and that the use of any other language would threaten the stability of that relationship.
It often helps to see things in that way, from outside of your usual experience. Living in Hong Kong for six years has made me understand this in almost everything I do. In my apartment four languages are spoken – Tagalog, Ilongo, Bahasa Indonesia and English – of which I understand only one. Each time I step out of the building most of the conversation I hear is in Cantonese. The neighbourhood in which I live, unusually for the city, is also alive with German, French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. Am I a lesser person for not understanding the conversations around me? No. Even if they were in English, I probably wouldn’t be listening anyway.
A profusion of languages doesn’t really confuse, it just makes you realise that you possess one, or at best a few, ways of communicating amongst many. The other conversations simply go on without you. And the tolerance of a city to languages other than what’s most often spoken, for the many little side conversations that contribute to its public voice, is a crucial way of improving that city, its outlook, and the forms of intolerance that linger in big ways and small. Congratulations Nashville, babble on.