We have just experienced the interesting opportunity over the last three weeks, of hosting a young 16-year-old lad from Germany. Max, the nephew of a very good friend of mine, wanted to have a farm experience during his summer holidays. We planned it several months in advance.
Apart from enjoying having someone to look after for a little while (the tragic empty-nester syndrome) having Max in the house, whose first language is not English, has given me an opportunity to see my language and culture in a new light. Max’s English (currently B but he hopes to turn it into an A next year) is very good but of course we use many colloquialisms, not taught in the classroom, and we are totally unaware that we use them.
For example, we were out working on a fence. Max was busy putting on droppers, a task he had just learned how to do. I asked him “Are you getting the hang of it?” He didn’t answer. I reflected on my choice of words (as I’ve had to do often over the last few weeks). Why the hell do we use the word “hang” in that context? Weird. But there are lots of examples just like that. For example, we use “ridiculous” and “hilarious” in not quite the same way those words were originally intended. He had to adjust to “Hi” and “Righto”.
Another example is “Good on you!” What does that mean exactly? Funny when you stop to think about it.
All this has reinforced an appreciation of a definition of language I read some time ago while studying my Master of Arts. “Language is an agreement within a social group as to the meaning of a word” [Umberto Eco]. We take our language for granted in Australia, particularly, I think because we rarely hear any other languages day to day, especially in the bush. I realise this is maybe changing in the city.
Max also made me look at my own prejudice towards Aboriginals … a prejudice I would have denied vehemently that I held. But prejudices can be so deeply ingrained in our culture that it’s “normal”, and we don’t “see” them. It came about while watching a news program and a young aboriginal woman was exhorting other young aboriginal women to follow her example in joining the armed forces. I made a derogatory comment about her use of the English language when I heard her say “Other womens should get out there and have a go”. Max challenged me by pointing out that English is not her first language. My quick retort was, “Yes, but she was born in Australia.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but my mind kept coming back to it. My self-reflection forced me to confront the intolerant and prejudicial nature of my retort which didn’t take into account the known disadvantages she likely encountered in her education (and life) … interesting how a visitor from another culture can make you confront attitudes.
So while we are looking forward to returning to our normal routine, Max shall be missed and he will leave me pondering the use of language, culture and world perspectives. We have certainly had some very interesting conversations!