I’ve managed to avoid APEC almost entirely thus far, both here on this blog and in real life. But last night, I was held up while walking along Pitt St. in Sydney, as a motorcade pulled out of the Hilton. It’s only fitting then, that I stop avoiding it on the blog.

Kevin Rudd, the Opposition leader, demonstrated his skills in Mandarin during an official APEC welcome for Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday, in which he ‘wowed’ a room full of Chinese press as well as the great Hu himself. The whole thing went for about half an hour and had to be interpreted on-line¹ for the local crowd (a small taste of Rudd’s Mandarin can be seen in this report, at about 4:30) [See the updates below].

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This section of perpetual updates is getting a bit out of hand, so I might detach it using my conventional section-breaking tildes.

[Sep 8: David has just alerted me to the fact that the link to Rudd's Mandarin doesn't work. Unfortunately I can't find a working one, except for a transcript of the report here (actually, it has the video too, over on the right, just noticed), which only transcribes Rudd's Mandarin as "KEVIN RUDD, OPPOSITION LEADER: (greetings in Mandarin)", which isn't very helpful. Apparently the ABC doesn't have good Mandarin transcribers, which is why we need SBS, Paul Sheehan. For video, you may have to navigate to the 7:30 Report's front page and select the video called 'The Politics of APEC". Again, it's about 4:30 through.]

[Sep 9: Both SBS and The Australian have reports specifically on Rudd's meeting with Hu Jintao whereas the ABC report uses it as a segue. The Australian report also contains a translation of what Rudd had to say; mostly mundane stuff really.]

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Anyway, we all know that Rudd speaks excellent Mandarin, and today some Chinese people found that out for the first time. Big deal. This post is about Downer’s reaction.

Asked if he was impressed by Mr Rudd’s language skills, Mr Downer, a French speaker, said he was not one to flaunt his talent with foreign tongues.

“I know dozens and dozens of people who speak a lot of languages, they don’t just speak Mandarin, but other languages as well.”

In other words: “Woopty-doo! Kevin can speak Mandarin, he’s such a show-off. Who cares anyway? I can speak French but I don’t show off whenever Sarcozy’s in town.”

Grow up, Alex.

Apart from that little whinge, Downer elaborated on his own linguistic prowess and genius, as opposed to the relative sloth with which Rudd evidently acquires languages:

I did the French language course and Mr Rudd did the Chinese language course. I did mine in two months and he did his in two years, that could say something [about] him and me or something about the two languages. I think the former but that sounds a tad partisan.

Downer “did” his in two months while Rudd “did” his in two years? I don’t think that says anything about you and him or the two languages, Mr Downer, but I do think it speaks volumes about your attitude towards multilingualism.

Hu Jintao doesn’t speak English as far as I know (perhaps Laurie could fill me in here), but alas, he is a native Mandarin speaker. Rudd also speaks Mandarin. The logical thing to do then, rather than having to go through an interpreter, which can be decidedly awkward in my experience, would be for Rudd and Hu to conduct their parlance in a language that they have in common.

Sure, Rudd may have been ‘flaunting’ it a tad, but why on Earth wouldn’t he? Why should multilingualism be something one has to hide? Why does Downer of all people seem to think so? He’s the Foreign Minister.

To be honest, I think Downer is a little sour that Rudd was getting so much attention over his talks with Hu, which is almost (but not really) taking some of the limelight away from Australia’s Woodside Petroleum’s $35 billion natural gas deal with China.

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¹On-line as in ‘live’ or ‘directly’, by an interpreter pumping out the English as quick as Rudd pumps out the Mandarin. I don’t mean it was ‘Babelfished’ or anything, unlike they appear to do at the Australian Federal Police, as Jane implies.

A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:

Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.

I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.

The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.

Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.

I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.

Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.

It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).

That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.

At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.

Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.

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