Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

Language at the Multicultural Festival

on February 11, 2013

My boyfriend and I decided to volunteer at the Multicultural Festival over the weekend. It is one of the largest events in Canberra, with free entry, free entertainment, and over 400 stalls ranging from embassy stands to ethnic foods. More than half of the city’s population will turn out for the event, so it is crowded, noisy, and a lot of fun.

For my first shift, I was sent to the information tent. It was a fairly simple job: hand out maps and entertainment programmes to people, and pretend I had a clue what was going on. I can fake it until I make it with the best of them, so this was a good level of challenge for a Friday afternoon.

While I was there, a group came looking for maps. The two women happily chatted to one of the Asian volunteers while the men stood in the middle of the walkway. Their conversation was loud, so it was easy to follow what they were saying.

The taller man protested to his friend that if people are going to be in this country, then they should speak English. He looked around the nearby stalls as he said it, and I wondered who had prompted the statement. Ordinarily I would agree with this position, but it sounded out of place at a multicultural festival. After all, the point of the festival is to celebrate cultural differences and diversity. One of those differences will always be language.

While listening to his overly loud statement, I noticed the linguistic difference between my opinion and his. I am a firm believer that you should be capable of speaking the local language; I never require that people do it when they are talking between themselves. As an English speaker in an English speaking country, I will go out of my way to speak a different language in a private conversation.

By changing “should be able” to “should”, a significant shift occurs in meaning. Being capable acknowledges that you will have other valuable skills that have a place in the locality. Being expected means that alternative skills lose their value.

People who can speak the local language will always have an advantage over those who can’t. It is easier to gain employment, go shopping, and find help in an emergency. You can communicate with your children’s teachers, understand warning signs, and engage in the local culture. Presumably you are in that place for a reason, and to be incapable of interacting effectively with those around you is a rapid strategy for misery.

Thinking of his statement, I can’t help but wonder about the context. Did he simplify a common statement said between friends, or was he responding to a particular incident that had frustrated him? Did he speak so loudly because he feared his friend would not hear him, or because he wanted everyone to listen? Whatever his intention, it is unfortunate that a valid social concern has been lost under the impression of a loud, opinionated bogan.

One response to “Language at the Multicultural Festival

  1. Mandi M. Lynch, author says:

    This makes me giggle. You should know pretty well that speaking the same language is not always the same thing. Dare I remind you about the guy at the pizza place in Huntsville?

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