In Australia, the experience of other countries and cultures is mostly embraced through food. And I believe, we are really missing out.
Australia’s decreasing appetite for foreign languages comes at a cost.
So much is embedded in language — and over just two or three generations, an entire language can be lost.
Thousands of the world’s languages are on the verge of extinction — including many local Indigenous ones.
Of the 6,000 to 7,000 spoken around the world today, half will be extinct by the end of this century, according to United Nations estimates.
When I came to Australia at the age of two, Arabic was the language I spoke at home with my mum and Teta (grandma). Mum insisted I only speak Arabic at home, and at primary school she sent me off to learn how to read and write more formal Arabic – known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).
To me, it was almost like learning a whole other language, despite my ability to speak colloquial Arabic. I couldn’t see the point then, so I quit.
Arabic has many different dialects and is the official language in more than 22 countries. Yet, the Arabic in literature, news media and taught in schools (MSA) is different to the Arabic spoken in homes.
For non-Arabic speakers, reading in MSA is the equivalent of reading in Chaucer’s Middle English or Shakespeare’s Elizabethan.
Now, at 36, I’m eternally grateful that mum hung in there to ensure that I grew up to be bilingual and at the very least, be able to speak fluently in my mother tongue. I do wish I had continued my Arabic education – as hard and as boring as I thought it was at the time.
And the simple fact is — it’s much harder to learn how to speak, read, and write in another language now as an adult.
According to the 2016 Census, a quarter of Australian households speak their a language other than English at home.
In my experience, it’s that parents may be using the mother tongue, but the children often don’t. And it’s being lost among second and third generation Australians.
It’s a huge loss when a language of origin becomes an exoticism and then winds up a mere casualty.
I call my extended family, the United Nations. I was fortunate to marry into a large multiracial family and between us we speak six different languages — Arabic, Vietnamese, Swedish, Croatian, Greek, and Mandarin.
When we get together, we speak English and each of us wishes we could speak each other’s mother tongue. None more so than the teens and kids who only speak English.
Through my own experience with my 5-year-old daughter, Elyssa and with many families I have spoken with, there is real concern about losing our heritage language.
I’m determined for my daughter to be bilingual, and have been speaking Arabic with her since she was born. I was skeptical at first, can her little brain process both languages? But I was simply imposing my own “adult” limitations and not appreciating the ultimate sponge of a child’s brain.
I’ve stuck with it and try and make it fun. I concede it’s not easy, but well worth it.
I’m surprised, thrilled and even envious of Elyssa’s child brain and how it embraces being bilingual – she’s even teaching my husband a few more complex words and sentences!
We extended Elyssa’s bilingualism into her daycare which was met with open arms. In addition to implementing the governments ELLA (Early Learning Language Australia) program into her class with French as the chosen language, Elyssa’s teachers love the opportunity to pick up new words and sentences in Arabic.
Her classmate’s curiosity about Elyssa’s language is infectious and brings about an eagerness to share their own parent’s heritage and language.
For me, fostering a love of languages with the kiddies is key. I think it’s OK if bilingual grown- ups aren’t fluent or educated in their mother tongues and get it wrong sometimes.
Just start with passing it on through words, humour, storytelling, songs and sheer fun – all the stuff you grew up with.
It may be met with eye rolls and sighs now, but trust me, you’ll be thanked one day and your child will reap the many forms of rewards.
Sirine Demachkie is the author and illustrator of bilingual children’s book, ‘Mama Baba, iza bit reedo…’ (Mummy Daddy, please…)