Language and cultural diversity

Volume 8 Number 1 January 9 - February 12 2012

Photo: Adrian Duncan
Photo: Adrian Duncan

Language learning not only increases our ability to communicate, it also helps us understand – and in some cases preserve – cultural diversity. By Ingrid Sanders.

Globalisation has changed the world we live in. It is no longer enough for Australians to speak only English. Instead, to strengthen professional and personal relationships we should be looking to emulate other regions around the world where citizens speak two, three or more different languages.

Students attending the University of Melbourne have taken heed of world trends and embraced the Melbourne curriculum of language education with added numbers seeking out languages as breadth subjects. The numbers of students studying East Asian languages have doubled in the past five years, while the numbers of European language students have increased by more than two-thirds.

Professor Alison Lewis from the School of Languages and Linguistics says there has been a 70 per cent increase in languages being studied at the University since 2008.

“Students taking a language as an undergraduate breadth subject has been great for language scholarship across the University, and there has been a big increase in numbers in our beginner courses,” she says.

“Demand for the Japanese beginner courses is huge. We had about 600 students enrolled in first semester last year. French has always been a popular choice and it remains really strong, while German and Italian student numbers are high, particularly for beginner subjects. Perhaps the biggest increase in European languages has been in Spanish. Numbers have continued to grow since it was introduced in 2003.”

Professor Lewis says there are many benefits to learning a language.

“Languages are the key to unlocking cultural diversity in a globalising world. Knowledge of a second, third, or fourth language opens doors and adds an extra dimension to someone’s skills set which can make all the difference in a competitive jobs market.

“For people who are looking to work for a global company, an international bank, NGO, law firm or engineering company, having language skills can be a real advantage.”

The School of Languages and Linguistics and the Asia Institute have had many students with interesting career ambitions through its doors, such as an aspiring beer brewer who took German because he was planning to spend time in Germany working with top brewers.

Professor Lewis says the student gained a much deeper understanding of German culture and its nuances through his language studies.

“When you learn a language, you don’t just learn how to communicate with someone. You gain a very deep understanding of how their culture operates,” she says.

“Language and culture are inseparable – if you don’t understand the language, much of the culture can get lost in translation.”

Another student reaping the benefits of researching languages is PhD student Lauren Gawne.

An inspiring 26-year-old, Ms Gawne has produced a short dictionary which is the first published work in Lamjung Yolmo, a language spoken by people who live in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal.

The book is part of an ongoing project funded by the Australian Research Council called ‘Social cognition and language: the design resources of grammatical diversity’, and is a partnership project with the World Oral Literature Project.

Ms Gawne says she started working on the project by sheer accident.

“I was going to work on a closely related language and asked a friend in Nepal to help me find some speakers. The woman my friend found spoke what we thought was the language in question, however it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realised she was in fact speaking Lamjung Yolmo – a previously unknown dialect.”

Undeterred, Ms Gawne continued with the project and ended up with the first published work of the language.

Lamjung Yolmo is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the Lamjung district of Nepal in only six villages made up of approximately 700 people. They still largely live a traditional lifestyle, farm on terraces and work the land with buffalo and oxen. After hundreds of years of isolation, 10 years ago the Nepalese government put a proper road and electricity into the area.

Ms Gawne says community members migrating to cities for work and a growing preference for Nepali to be spoken at home means the use of Lamjung Yolmo is declining.

To help share the work, which is not intended to be an exhaustive inventory of the language but just one component of its ongoing documentation, Ms Gawne has produced 40 copies of the dictionary that she will take back to the community early this year.

“Instead of leaving this work languishing in a database, the published dictionary is an opportunity to give something back to the Lamjung Yolmo-speaking community and share it with a wider audience.”

Post-doctoral Fellow Katie Sutton is a ‘poster girl’ for the School of Languages and Linguistics. She commenced an ARC Post-doctoral Fellowship in August 2010 as part of the Discovery Project ‘Making the Case: The Case Study Genre in Sexology, Psychoanalysis and Literature’ and previously held a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) post-doctoral fellowship to the University of Potsdam, Germany. She currently teaches in the German and European Studies programs.

Dr Sutton has used her German language skills to engage and connect with a different culture, and has recently published a book, The Masculine Woman in Weimar Germany that examines questions of gender in the turbulent post-World War I era, from “masculinised” fashions for women such as the tuxedo or monocle, to debates about women in competitive sport. In her book she argues that the media frenzy in 1920s Germany over women becoming too much like men provided a focus for larger social concerns about changing relations between men and women, such as the impact of women’s move from the home and into the workforce, or the return of soldiers from the war.

She says her research would not have been possible without her German language skills.

“Studying a language has so many benefits,” she says. “Without knowledge of German I wouldn’t have been able to access or read any of the primary source materials from Germany in the 1920s: the fashion and popular magazines, the “New Woman” literature, or the newspaper articles about women in sport.

“A major benefit of studying German at university on top of my study in-country is that I gained an understanding of the grammatical and technical basis of the language.

“Being able to study a different language opens a range of possibilities. It opens up a whole new culture.”

Another academic engaging with international communities through language is Professor John Hajek from the School of Languages and Linguistics. He is working with a team to improve early childhood literacy in Timor-Leste by producing reading materials for preparatory, grade one and grade two children in the mother tongues of the country.

Professor Hajek says one of the major challenges of improving literacy in developing countries is the access to and cost of resources. Overall, 41 per cent of East Timorese live below the poverty line and more than half the population is unable to read or write.

High drop-out rates in education, particularly in primary grades (as many as 70 per cent don’t reach grade 6) are identified as one of the significant challenges facing the East Timorese Ministry of Education.

Professor Hajek says current literacy and learning outcomes of East Timor’s two official languages of Tetum and Portugese are recognised to be very poor, resulting in substantial negative long-term outcomes for East Timorese children.

“The failure to foster initial literacy in the mother tongue among those whose first language is neither Tetum or Portugese is now recognised by the Government of Timor-Leste to be a major contributing factor in children’s literacy development,” he says.

To help solve this problem, the team, led by Professor Hajek, has produced 15 graded readers for prep, grade one and two students. The books have been prepared by Sue Worcester, an experienced primary school teacher.

Professor Hajek says the readers can be translated easily and produced cheaply, used at school or at home, and reproduced without a large price tag.

The fully illustrated readers will be initially produced in three mother tongue languages – Fatuluku, Baikenu and Wai Ma’a.

Professor Hajek says the benefit of the program is that it is hands-on and very practical.

“The program will be trialled and evaluated in three areas in 2012 and then will likely roll-out in following years.

“It also supports the new Timorese Ministry of Education policy of early mother tongue literacy by providing high quality early readers for use in schools.”