Mind your languages

by Hamish Keith / 11 April, 2013
Cultural diversity is something to embrace
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.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

The power of an electric cargo bike in Auckland
71804 2017-04-29 00:00:00Z Urbanism

The power of an electric cargo bike in Auckland

by Paperboy

"It’s a way back to the freedom of youth, when kicking around on a bike with friends was one of life’s great joys."

Read more
Politicians aren’t talking to us this election year, but to Winston Peters
71902 2017-04-28 14:08:09Z Politics

Politicians aren’t talking to us this election yea…

by Jane Clifton

We don't want any David Cunliffe cod-bogan attempts to get down with the peeps, but MPs seem to be going way too far in the other direction this year.

Read more
9th Floor: Jenny Shipley on how 'middle class welfare' is morally bankrupt
71856 2017-04-28 09:53:00Z Politics

9th Floor: Jenny Shipley on how 'middle class welf…

by Guyon Espiner

Dame Jenny Shipley on being the first woman Prime Minister, plus coups and coalitions, welfare reform and Winston Peters.

Read more
Win a double pass to exclusive screening of McLaren
71854 2017-04-28 09:39:24Z Win

Win a double pass to exclusive screening of McLare…

by The Listener

McLaren is the definitive tale of New Zealander Bruce McLaren, who created a motor racing empire from his shed.

Read more
Win a double pass to Doc Edge Festival
71847 2017-04-28 09:30:01Z Win

Win a double pass to Doc Edge Festival

by The Listener

Doc Edge Festival is one of Australasia’s premier international documentary film festivals.

Read more
First look: Poké Poké
Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban
71842 2017-04-28 09:07:08Z Nutrition

Health Minister dismisses chocolate fundraiser ban…

by RNZ

Should schools be selling chocolate to raise funds? The Health Minister says it's ok, but nutrition experts disagree.

Read more
Film review: Denial
71718 2017-04-28 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Denial

by Peter Calder

The dramatisation of a Holocaust denier’s libel suit is both engrossing and moving.

Read more