English is my second language. It’s a fact I was acutely aware of on my first day of kindergarten. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to converse with my classmates. I figured I would get by somehow, that we would bridge the language gap easily and swiftly. For some reason at the tender age of five I had formulated a theory that all the answers of the world lay in books, so it stands to reason that all I wanted to take with me on this decade-plus adventure was a book, the biggest book I could find. The book was going to reflect my enthusiasm, and contain many of the lessons I would need on this quest for learning.
So I proceeded to locate the biggest book in the house, and then I presented that book to my mother, who burst out laughing. She called over my sister and they joined each other in even louder laughter, and I was left truly bewildered. I knew the book was a bit oversized, but what I didn’t realise is that I had picked up the phone book! Not being able to read the contents, it seemed large and credible to me, and looked a bit like a soft encyclopaedia. Once their laughter subsided, my mum explained that I would be given books at school, and so after some convincing I eventually agreed to relinquish this one, and to venture into this new world unarmed, but nevertheless ready to soak up this new language.
A few things stay with me about those early days. The power of language to divide or unite. I was not only ignored on the playground and in the classroom, but there was also the feeling I was different in a way that wasn’t seen as positive. My ‘other’ language had somehow estranged me and I felt subordinate to my classmates. I couldn’t comprehend why, so in an effort to really belong to this new tribe, I attempted to quickly master what would become my dominant language, English. Over the years it was though my heritage mattered less and less, because it was never perceived as something to be embraced.
Twenty years ago when my dear mum passed away, so did my confident grasp of the Greek language. Sadly I allowed the decline. Now of course I lament that easy way I used to communicate in my native tongue, so I’ve enrolled in Adult Greek school in order to help restore that. With age I have come to fully realise and appreciate the nuances and the cultural strength contained in the words gifted to me by my ancestors, and the special expressions that contain within them the Hellenic way of life.
I only wish I had held up the importance of maintaining my Greek in the same way that I embraced English. It’s hard to admit that I was more articulate as a 10 year-old Greek, than I am now. Now it’s somewhat cooler to be bilingual. Back then, in a less egalitarian Australian cultural landscape, it was anything but.
Keeping a language alive is about more than learning text and grammar. It is born of an intrinsic need to preserve our cultural legacy, in the traditions and customs which strengthen our membership to that world… and it plays a huge part in identifying who we are and where we have come from and then placing that meaning in the context of who we are today. It doesn’t take away from the other language or languages we speak, it only adds to them, and richly so.
And learning entirely new languages allows any of us to enter new worlds at any time. No need to apply. Just bring your new words and good intent with you and suddenly you realise just how wondrous and wide the global community is, and how much we still have to gain by partaking in it through language.
But the final word goes to the great Italian filmmaker and visionary Federico Fellini whose quote really sums it all up for me.
“A different language is a different vision of life”.
I'm also very excited to announce a proud new association for me! View the media release below.