Saturday, March 14, 2009


When Christopher Columbus sailed west in 1492 to discover the new route to China and India he took along an expert Hebrew speaker. Everyone knew it was the original language before the Tower of Babel gave mankind many different tongues. I’m sure both parties, American Indians and Hebrew speaker would have had equal difficulty communicating.

Questions of language and communication have intrigued me all my adult life. One of the pleasures in teaching English was this aspect. But increasingly I became aware of a gap in my education; I’d never learnt another language. Whenever I travelled in Europe I watched with regret the ease that people often spoke in several languages. It’s an access to different cultures that I regret. Any culture is bound up in its language. Maori know this – hence their urgency about its use. Some people argue that English is becoming the world language and therefore we don’t need to learn other languages. Hollywood and the Internet will ensure the dominance of English they claim. They forget that Rome did not last forever. Some futurists predict the breakup of the USA, with a new Spanish speaking nation in the southwest and southeast. But while it is true that Russian airline pilots landing at Cairo receive and return information in English it is a fact that the Russians remain embedded in the culture that nurtured them and the Egyptians retain an Egyptian psyche.

I enjoyed the several years when I managed the work of the national language advisers for schools on contract from the Ministry of Education. There were nationals from Japan, China, Germany and Spain. For a historic reason the French adviser was a Kiwi teacher who was given a year’s training in France – a much sought after position. The Japanese and Chinese advisers couldn’t understand the other’s spoken language but they could communicate through writing. One day the Japanese adviser asked, “What is hail?” The Chinese adviser draws the signs in the air with his hand. “Frozen rain,” she said. We all nodded. Once, there was a hilarious moment during a team meeting. Someone made a suggestion. I countered, “we can’t go on milking that particular golden goose.” Several minutes later Hansjorg the German adviser said he’d given up trying to work out what I meant. I explained. He said, “in a million years I’d never have known”. Interesting all the Kiwis in the room knew exactly what I meant.

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