November 10, 2008 | Kevin Yeoh
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Stu Jay Raj puts us all to shame. He speaks 29 languages. Fifteen fluently. Amazingly, he is Australian.
It’s amazing because language studies in Australia are in a sorry state of affairs. Language studies have collapsed from 40% of year 12 students in the 1960s to fewer than 15% today. I’ve previously pounded the table about this issue in The Age and will continue to, as it’s so important to Australia’s future. Monolingual Australia risks becoming increasingly isolated in a world where bilingualism will increasingly become the norm.
Sceptics commonly counter with a valid question: “Isn’t English the most widely-spoken second language?”
This may well be the case (at least currently, but watch out for China’s rise). As Stu Jay Raj points out in his video, the most important and interesting parts of learning a language are the psychological, historical and cultural aspects bundled up inside. They enable someone to not only become bilingual (able to speak), but bicultural (able to interact with and understand a culture).
Australia is at a significant disadvantage in a globalised world where we constantly deal with people from other cultures. Our counterparts are more than likely able to speak English. Given the effort they’ve made to learn our language, we might take comfort in our ability to converse with them. But it’s ignorant to think that this leads to successful communication.
Not being able to speak our counterparts’ language means we’re locked out of a complex and deep world of cultural nuance and understanding. It also means they have a greater understanding of us, than we have of them. Hence, we’re already on the backfoot when we enter into business deals or government negotiations.
Stu Jay Raj’s video is bloody impressive. In part two, which can be found on his website, he finishes off with sign language and Morse code.
My only criticism relates to the sub-titles. They make the viewer comfortable. This is the core of the problem. We become complacent as we get a general feel for what he’s saying. However, even with the sub-titles, a lot of the meaning is lost in translation.
Having no sub-titles would make us feel uncomfortable. And this is exactly how we should be feeling about Australia’s language capabilities.
Kevin is an editor for The Backbench.