So if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself —Gloria Anzaldua.

Language maintenance and pluralism mean different things to different groups. Multilingualism is an act of survival for linguistic minorities, but read as a deviation, a threat, a sign of defiance and a rejection of fundamental nation-state values by the dominant culture in migrant receiving and white settler contexts. This interpretation of language pluralism is epitomised in the Stormtroopers of Death song Speak English Or Die (1985).

You come into this country
You can’t get real jobs
Boats and boats and boats of you
Go home you fuckin’ slobs
Selling hot dogs on the corner
Selling papers in the street
Pushing, pulling, digging, sweating
Where you come from must be beat[CHORUS]
You always make us wait
You’re the ones we hate
You can’t communicate
Speak English Or DieYou don’t know what I want
You don’t know what I need
Why must I repeat myself
Can’t you fuckin’ read?
Nice fuckin’ accents
Why can’t you speak like me
What’s that dot on you head,
Do you use it to see?

I was reminded of it with the news of a racist incident in Melbourne where a group of French-speaking women travelling on a bus were told by another woman to “speak English or die”. The verbal abuse captured on video shows a second man threatening to cut the woman with a knife. The knives remained in the kitchen in a New Zealand Herald report about the unfair dismissal of a chef who in addition to the sin of not knowing the difference between types of tofu “insisted on listening to Indian music and speaking Hindi” which  “affected” customers. This anxiety about the speaking of languages other than English extends to the policy sphere with many states in the US introducing legislative bills to make English the official state language, for example Minnesota in 2011. Even signs in languages in other languages provoke discomfort. Massey University researchers Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin found some New Zealanders responded with “annoyance” or “repugnance” when confronted with a space that did not make immediate, translatable sense.

What is with this monolingual sense of entitlement over public space and deep rage that is provoked by people speaking (or singing as the Frenchwomen were) in their own language?

I think it has a lot to do with how “we” might imagine “ourselves”. Language is a glue that coheres people, identities and values. Hearing a different language represents a threat to the power relations of the dominant group.

Immigrants are not supposed to be heard…. Immigrant culture and language—assumed to have little prestige or usefulness in comparison with the dominant American culture and the English language—are supposed to fade away quickly as assimilation runs its course—Castro, 1992.

The anxiety (Xenoglossophobia) generated in hearing a language that is out-of-place, reflects an anxiety about broader demographic changes that have resulted in the browning of our societies. Having a monoglot ideology though means that linguistic diversity is denied and prohibited. If English is the only language that can be heard, then this effectively silences other languages, cultures and ideas.

Assimilationist and genocidal approaches to linguistic plurality have been central to settler capitalist histories requiring the coercive adoption of majority languages in the interests of economic development. Monolingualism was fundamental to economic growth and supporting language minority rights was viewed as a threat to the nation-state because of having an unassimilated ‘other’ (Phillipson, Rannut, & Skutnabb-Kangas, 1994, p. 4). Colonisation and migration led many to abandon their own languages in order to access the social and political benefits of incorporation and assimilation or risk being stigmatised. My experience of trying to reclaim my own language is relevant here. The Portuguese colonisation of Goa led to the Konkani language being marginalised through the enforcement of Portuguese. This linguistic displacement made Konkani the lingua de criados (language of the servants) as Hindu and Catholic elites turned to Marathi and Portuguese respectively. Ironically Konkani is now the ‘cement’ that binds all Goans across caste, religion and class and in 1987 Konkani was made an official language of Goa. Ironically, contemporary iterations of [neo]colonial and [neo]liberal agendas require the appropriation of languages in the interests of global capital, as seen by the push for Chinese language learning in Australia, with monolinguists questioning the global relevance of indigenous languages. Setting up a familiar dynamic of competing indigenous and migrant others. Interestingly the National Statement on Language Policy published by The Human Rights Commission reflects these tensions:

Human Rights and Responsibilities

The right to learn and use one’s own language is an internationally recognised human right. Human rights treaties and declarations specifically refer to rights and responsibilities in relation to indigenous languages, minority languages, learning and using one’s mother tongue, the value of learning international languages, and access to interpretation and translation services. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act provides that ‘a person who belongs to an ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority in New Zealand shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of that minority, to enjoy the culture, to profess and practise the religion, or to use the language of that minority’.

New Zealand has a particular responsibility under the Treaty of Waitangi and international law to protect and promote te reo Mäori as the indigenous language of New Zealand. It also has a special responsibility to protect and promote other languages that are indigenous to the New Zealand realm: Vagahau Niue, Gagana Tokelau, Cook Island Mäori, and New Zealand Sign Language. It has a regional responsibility as a Pacific nation to promote and protect other Pacific languages, particularly where significant proportions of their communities live in New Zealand.

Economic Development

A significant and growing proportion of New Zealand’s trade is with Asia and learning the languages of our key trading partners is an economic imperative.

Interestingly the New Zealand Settlement Strategy in its seven goals for successful settlement, aims for newcomers to New Zealand to:

  1. feel welcomed and connected
  2. get the right job and contribute to future prosperity
  3. speak and understand New Zealand English
  4. know how to access information and services
  5. feel proud and confident
  6. feel safe
  7. understand and contribute to New Zealand society.

But there is no emphasis on language maintenance.

Aotearoa New Zealand and linguistic pluralism

Aotearoa New Zealand has two official languages: Te Reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL). English is a de facto official language as it is widely used in Aotearoa, English is spoken by 95.9 percent of people, after which the most common language in which people are proficient in is Māori, spoken by 4.1 percent (157,110 people). 24,090 people report being able to use New Zealand Sign Language and 6,057 people can communicate in all three official languages. Between 2001 and 2006, the numbers of people in New Zealand who spoke Hindi almost doubled, from 22,749 to 44,589, the number of people able to speak Northern Chinese (Mandarin) increased from 26,514 to 41,391, the number of people able to speak Korean increased from 15,873 to 26,967, and the number of people able to speak Afrikaans increased from 12,783 to 21,123. The number of multilingual people increased by 19.5 percent between the 2001 and 2006 Censuses to reach 671,658 people, a 43.3 percent increase from 468,711 people in 1996. Where you were born has a big impact on whether you speak two or more languages, overseas-born residents are more likely than New Zealand-born usual residents to be able to speak two or more languages. 35 percent of overseas-born children (aged 0 to 14 years) speak two or more languages, compared with 11.5 percent of New Zealand-born children. As do working-age people aged between 15 to 64 years, of whom almost half 48.5 percent were multilingual, compared with 10.0 percent of New Zealand-born people. In 2006, 2.2 percent of people could not speak English. Of these, the majority were born overseas (80.3 percent).

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission views the promotion of language as a human right. Its 2005 vision for language was that “by the bicentenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 2040 New Zealand is well established as a bilingual nation and communities are supported in the use of other languages”. It contributes to that vision in many ways including publishing a monthly e-newsletter, Te Waka Reo; a National Statement on Language Policy; supporting language weeks and other language promotion activities,and dealing with complaints about discrimination involving language (e.g. using languages other than English in the workplace).

Being fluent in three languages but not in Konkani when I arrived in New Zealand (and now not being able to speak at all in Maragoli and poorly in Swahili) has taught me that languages open up different ways of thinking and of understanding the world, but fluency isn’t passive. It must be nurtured in the context of a community. The last New Zealand Census identified that there were 588 Konkani speakers in Aotearoa, an increase from 210 in 2001. This rise gives me great heart and hope for the possibility that I might be able to reclaim my own language (amchi bas). Learning other languages has taught me to empathise and to advocate. Perhaps more than anything this is what learning another language or reclaiming our own language offers us, a chance to connect with ourselves and others in ways that are truly meaningful, but that too must be fostered.

If you talk to a [wo]man in a language [s]he understands, that goes to [her]/his head. If you talk to [her]/him in [her]/his language, that goes to [her]/his heart—Nelson Mandela

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