'Speak English': The two words holding us back from true diversity today

A flag seller on Coogee Beach on Australia Day 2016.

A flag seller on Coogee Beach on Australia Day 2016. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Among all of the stories of white people ignorance and stupidity that came out of Australia Day last week, one stood out for its sheer, painful irony.

As recounted in a blog post, Aboriginal woman and artist Elizabeth Close was at the shops with her five-year-old daughter, when she called out to her in Pitjantjatjara. A young woman dressed in novelty Australian flag leggings took it upon herself to intervene: "Hey! It's Australia Day! We speak English in Australia!"

When Ms Close sought clarification for what she'd just heard, it was repeated, with extra venom. "My eyes welled for the little Anangu girl that I held in my arms, seemingly oblivious to the hate-filled scene that had developed before her," she wrote in the post.

Elizabeth Close

Elizabeth Close Photo: Facebook/Elizabeth Close

It is rather ironic that someone would tell an Aboriginal person to "speak English" on Australia Day. But in many other ways, more than ironic, it's simply apt. As we all know Australia Day isn't so much a day for celebrating the country that we share - it's too lacking in respect for that. It's a day that celebrates the British Empire more than anything else. January 26: the day that Britain claimed another piece of the world map as its own.


And what better way to mark the invasion of this country and the subsequent attempts to destroy all traces of its original inhabitants than by walking around in clothing that bears the Union Jack, telling Indigenous people to speak English or shut up?

After all, it seems that demanding strangers speak English is a new (or probably not-so-new) favourite pastime of Australian bigots.

There was that wave of complaints to Optus last month over the telecommunications provider providing communication in Arabic. A few weeks earlier, a video of a racist tirade against a young woman who had the gall to speak to her mother in Spanish while on a Sydney train went viral.

Of course, it's likely that those who are so angered by merely overhearing another language being spoken in Australia would nevertheless expect people in other countries to be able to speak to them in English. Such is the blind entitlement of the English-speaking world. 

It's tempting to blame random rednecks on social media or public transport for this sort of discourse. Just a bunch of uneducated white people who have a chip on their shoulder, right?

But while the prompt to wear 'monolingual' as a badge of honour (providing the lingo is English) is convenient for people whose education may leave them little alternative, it's the powerful who deliberately use language as a tool for dividing and conquering.

Just as it's no accident that colonisers find ways to destroy and replace the languages of occupied people, it's no surprise in the current climate to see the likes of UK Prime Minister David Cameron using the English language as a weapon of sorts against Muslim immigrants - threatening to deport women who come on spouse visas unless they pass a language test. This is a deliberate measure aimed at combating 'radicalisation', he says. And while there's no ban on speaking Arabic, by demonising those who do as potential terrorists who are probably talking about their plans to bomb whatever restaurant you're both eating at, it inflicts immense social pressure on those who do speak it in public to stop.

Language holds the key to culture, identity and history. And as at least some of the more than 100 Aboriginal languages lost to this country indicate, it can all be swept away in a generation or two - if you're ruthless enough.

Our language shapes how we interpret the world around us. Languages developed over vast amounts of time contain a wealth of understanding particular to the people who use it, the places they live and their cultural practices. Words bring concepts to life that might not even exist in our minds without a way to name them. And it's not just words, but how they're put together that shapes how we understand the world. Just look at our current debates around gendered pronoun usage: the fact that English demands we identify a person as either male or female makes it that much more difficult for us to come to grips with transgenderism and non-binary identifying people.

So what does it mean for alternative ways of thinking - especially those associated with Indigenous minorities, for example - if they are left without a means of expression, or an audience even capable of listening (let alone willing)?

Without the tools of communication - especially in this globalised, media-driven era - people are rendered powerless. The world may need a global language to function effectively, but the consequences of whitewashing with English (rather than celebrating multilingualism) reach beyond disadvantaging those who don't speak it. The more monolingual we become (especially when language is not approached critically), the more difficult it is to conceive of different ways of thinking. To be open to those different ideas.

If we truly value multiculturalism, we must value multilingualism. That doesn't mean we all need to speak five languages (although wouldn't it be great if we did?). But it does mean improving opportunities for learning languages in schools - including primary schools - rather than the current attitude that English is enough and anything more is a pointless luxury. It means accommodating and normalising languages other than English in public messaging and public spaces. And it means ending the demonisation of people who speak other languages - whether they are Indigenous Australians holding on to the culture white Australia tried so hard to destroy, or immigrants, refugees or tourists.

There's no pride in being a monolingual nation of English-supremacists. If Australia won't embrace language diversity, then we really can't claim to be the multicultural melting pot that we like to tell ourselves we are.