Why Learn Language?

Last week, a comment was posted on a previous post which challenged the importance of learning language in the modern global society and indeed of trying to learn a language that so few people speak.

The commenter stated:

If there is only 3000 people speaking it then why not let it die off naturally, until it is replaced with English. There are still far too many languages in the world and this causes mis-understanding which can often lead to bloody conflict.The way to global peace is only having one language for the entire world to speak.

Chinese is ok for badly dubbed Kung fu films but essentially its just incomprehensable gobbledlygook, so that only leaves English, which is already the most popular language by far.

Firstly, I’d like to challenge the last remark that English is the most popular language by far. How is this popularity measured? If we go by sheer number of native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is the most ‘popular’ language with more than 845 million speakers. Even if we add in non-native speakers, Mandarin still comes out tops with English a distant second. The only way English wins a popularity contest is if we look at countries with English as an official language. Then we get a fair proportion of this wonderful globe. But in parts of the Southern United States, more than 30% of the population speak Spanish as a first language.

Now “Chinese” as ‘incomprehensable gobbledlygook’ [sic] is such a false statement that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Not speaking “Chinese” myself, it is of course incomprehensible to me, but I’m sure the 845 million Mandarin speakers disagree. Hell, some accents in English are incomprehensible to me – I only speak Strine English. But maybe, if you are interested in hearing what English might sound like to someone who doesn’t speak it, check out this short film Skwerl, which was made to sound like the cadence of English without having a single sensical sentence in it.

“There are far too many languages in the world, and this often leads to bloody conflict.”

I’d argue that this point is highly debatable. Yes, there are wars between peoples who speak different languages, but how often is this through an oral misunderstanding. Another commenter pointed out the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian conflict of the 90s as demonstrative of a conflict where people spoke almost the same language. The Hutu and Tutsi conflict in Rwanda was between two groups who both spoke the same language. The US Civil War and Spanish Civil War were both wars of disagreement where the actors spoke the same language. And I think it would be highly tenuous to suggest that any other war in the modern era has been caused due to, in primary, a language miscommunication.

If there are only 3000 speakers of it, why not let it die off naturally”.

The death of a language or the absorption of a new one means so much more to a person than just a ‘natural death’. Language affects the way one perceives the world, how one exists within it. It can tell us the importance cultures place on different aspects, how they order themselves socially. Check this documentary out about the Piraha in South America for how different a worldview language can create.

In my country, Aboriginal languages have rarely died off naturally. They have ceased to exist through imposition, through imperialism, through the removal of children, through the banning of use in public life, not merely through its natural abandonment for a new tongue.

But this is besides the point. Why am I trying to learn Pitjantjatjara?

Because in trying to speak their language, I am able to see the world a little more from their eyes. I can better put myself in the shoes of the students I teach as they struggle with my language. I can begin to comprehend their confusion and recognise where mistakes are made. I can have a conversation with the old woman who lives next door to me, but speaks little English. I can participate in discussions that directly effect the community I live in – and I can understand frustrations when they are voiced in language. And I let go of some of my culture’s hegemony and walk a path with a people whose voice is too often ignored, forgotten or lost in the clamour of mainstream Australia.

I may not be thanked for it. I may not even master it. But it’s more fun saying let me try and speak like you than saying let me make you speak like me.

And I hope that if more of my country thought like this, perhaps we would act out more of the ideals we so often voice without action.

Plus if we didn’t have Pitjantjatjara, we wouldn’t have this song.




Filed under Education

16 responses to “Why Learn Language?

  1. I really liked your article and so I posted an article on his blog.
    If you will have any objection, I am ready at any time to remove your article.

  2. Rosemary Carter

    I wondered whether there would be the same response if there were only an equivalent number of a particular species left in the world would we let it ‘die out naturally’. What would happen to the cute little Australian desert hopping mice?
    As to wars, I’m pretty sure wars arise because of disregard for people and desire to have something that is another people’s delight… Envy, bigotry, prejudice, greed … whatever language. R

  3. nannus

    A great and very necessary article. The attitude shown by the author of that comment is exactly the attitude that leads to wars, genocides and suppression.
    Nice song by the way. The absence of fricative sounds (like s, f, sh etc.) in those Australian languages makes them extremely nice for singing.

  4. I’m learning a lot about this at the moment through my course – about the importance of language to a person or group’s identity, how Australian Aboriginals especially have a strong sense of ‘relatedness’ to the land and their culture and how that is tied up in language. Even if I wasn’t learning this though, I would know more than to denigrate anyone’s language by calling it ‘gobbledygook’…

    The NSW board of Education had this to say in 2003: “Aboriginal languages are fundamental to strengthening the identity of Aboriginal people and their connections to country… All people have a right to learn their own language, particularly in their own country.”

    Some people have to put themselves in other’s shoes more, I think.

  5. Oh, btw, on a similar thread – do you know of any words in Pitjantjatjara that were created to describe some new phenomena and which have local etymology rather than English? I’m looking for some examples of where new words have been developed in Aboriginal languages, but haven’t found any through the online dictionaries.

    • L

      G’day Vividhunter,

      Not having a particularly vast lexicon in Pitjantjatjara yet, there’s only one word that I can think of. There is a word for tea, ‘iruwa’, which apparently was taken from the Arrernte word. However, it’s not really used any more having been replaced with the word ‘kapati’. There’s also the word ‘wali’ which is for buildings, houses etc… but I don’t know how old it is as a word.

      What are you studying?

      • Thanks for that – it’s for an assignment. I had to consider how to promote reading in a school with 20% of the population as indigenous kids. I did my imagined context based around Charters Towers in QLD, where I grew up, and where a local called William Santo, who is from the Gudjal people, has produced some picture dictionaries of Aboriginal words into English. My suggestion was making similar picture dictionaries for other words during a unit in science for example so that the kids feel their language is valued, as well as supporting their English comprehension.

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  7. I’m fascinated by your studying an Australian native language. I think the point of view you will gain will be fantastic. I wonder if the point of view itself will be something you can blog about? The people whose language you’re learning are pretty insignificant; no one cares much about their point of view. I think it’s wonderful that as you learn this language, you become more and more a person who cares about the point of view of those few care about. Keep at it!

    • L

      Thanks for reading,

      There’s so many traditional languages in Australia and so many near extinction that it can be pretty daunting for mainstream Australia to know how to begin interacting. It would be great to see an increased acknowledgement of the importance of maintaining and recognising language within our institutions, especially as so many people living remote speak English as a second, third or fourth language. While we are inherently a monolingual culture, we value immigrant backgrounds enough to encourage the learning of Asiatic, European and Arabic languages, but for those smaller communities here in our backyard, we seem to deny the value of their own and push English. Undoubtedly being able to speak English here is of vital importance – but to learn Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Yolngu, Warlpiri and a range of other local languages still in reasonably widespread use across the country would add a vibrant colour to our national culture and improve non-Indigenous and Indigenous relationships.

      For me, though, as I struggle with how to add more than one verb to a sentence, it’s about helping me connect to families, and to challenge the paradigm of power relationships through language.

      • “Challenge the paradigm of power relationships through language.” Music to my ears! That’s exactly what I want to do in my city. I’m happy to hear from someone with this same value.

        Can you tell more about how learning the language of the unappreciated helps anyone?

      • Hi Luke,

        This is a fabulous article and it’s just not ignorant ‘bogan’ types who have this attitude, either. Just a few days ago, I left a comment on a prominent polyglot’s blog, commenting about the lack of internet resources for people who are learning Aboriginal (and other until recently, unwritten) languages and received a dismissive reply along the lines of ‘no one wants to learn these languages, and you’d have to go live in the bush to learn them, so why should we waste time on developing resources online?’ With a lame link to the Arrernte alphabet and a very poorly copied piece of script from Alice Springs Town Council’s website.

        I. Was. Flabbergasted. to say the least!

        And this -this!- from a polyglot, apparently promoting the learning of language!

        I speak intermediate Arrernte (I live in Alice) and besides being an anthropologist, work for the Aboriginal Interpreter Service in Alice Springs. Anyone who believes that Aboriginal languages -and the learning of them- is irrelevant needs to come and sit in the courthouse here for a day, or even just walk around the town and hear the variety, vibrancy and HEALTH of many of our languages here in Central Australia. Far from being irrelevant, these languages are alive and thriving.
        …and changing.

        It is ironic that less than 100 years ago, white Australians were predicting the extinction of Aboriginal people – yet the Aboriginal population of the NT is growing at a rate that far exceeds that of mainstream Australia. Yes, we have lost many, many languages -even in the time I’ve been here, the last fluent speakers of Lower Southern Arrernte have passed away, and languages like Kaytetye are critically endangered – but other languages remain and are spoken by considerable numbers of people everyday.

      • L

        Hi Amanda,

        Yes, it definitely is not just a view of ‘bogan’ types. It’s highly prevalent throughout the Australian community – and scarily so amongst non-Indigenous people working remotely.

        Sadly, my Pitjantjatjara feels like it has plateaued recently. My comprehension improved for a while – and the speed of the language has definitely slowed to my ears – but actually improving my speech is slow going. I have plenty of possible teachers around me, but it’s difficult to find someone who is willing to listen to my baby-speak and incoherency while patiently correcting it. Ngalta. 😦

        It’s never ceases to amaze me how many people seem to think that being a demonstrator of Standard Australian English as a teacher negates learning the language as you go – as if the two cannot coexist and cancel each other out. I suppose it reflects the monolingualism in Australia.

        I must keep writing this blog. I get caught up in work, study and life and never find the time.

        Thanks for reading.

  8. Pingback: What makes a language useful? | Loving Language

  9. CrazyBushGirl


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