Apologies for my absence – I have a somewhat good reason for my disappearing act
If you visit this blog regularly and have noticed the lack of posts in the last two weeks, please read on. If you don’t, you can ignore my apology and move on to the next section. 🙂
I have spent the last months submerged in an endless universe of Chinese characters that as of yesterday, just seemed to morph and mutate in my brain without any regard for the many hours of my life I had invested in trying to retain them, pronounce them, read them and write them. Why would I want to do that? Chinese government exams – an outlet for my quietly hyperactive tendencies that leave me always physically unable to read (blind, that is, after focusing at the tiny little combination of strokes) and brain and body dead.
But I have slept for over 12 hours and I think although I am still slightly blinded, my brain is slowly making sense of things around it. So, I’m back. And there are so many things I want to say. But I’ll start with something I was pondering on yesterday.
I sat in front of this exam, in a class full of teenagers of Chinese background whose now Australian resident parents want them to continue mastering their mother tongue and have a written proof of their skills. In that frantic moment, it became very apparent that every language is a treasure, an extremely intelligent way to interpret the reality that different groups of humans have encountered for millennia. And it was evident that it is not just a matter of memorising, reading, writing and pronouncing, there is a lot more to it (this became particularly obvious when the 12 year old Chinese student sitting right next to me was zooming through the exam, nonchalantly going from page to the next, hardly paying attention to the voice that spoke about economy and the environment, while I struggled to make the connections between the characters in the paper. To me, she had either memorised every single possible answer in all the sample papers, or she was able to decipher the logic behind the structure of the language a lot more easily than me – or both).
Language and our interpretation of the world
I won’t go into too much detail as I have already talked about it sufficiently in this blog (see Thinking in Chinese, Why can’t I process my thoughts like you do and A Universal Metalanguage). But in order to get to the point I want to make today, I want to reiterate my preference to view language not merely as a transparent mirror or reflection of the world before us but as a reflection of our interpretation of the world. To put it simply, a person in Mongolia looks at the steppe landscape that makes up his/her every day world and makes sense of what he/she sees in a totally different way from a person in the Amazones would in his/her humid rain forest. The difference in interpretation is not only due to the opposed nature of the landscape before them and the type of life and events the landscape creates for them to react to, but it is also due to the way each one of them have shaped meanings from their environments and the tools they have used to do so throughout their histories.
So, every single one of the 6,000 or 7,000 languages that are currently alive in the world conveys not just what exists in the world that surrounds each speaker of that language, but the manner in which that group has chosen to conceptualise their specific reality.
Languages are used to carry on the unending structuring of meanings of the group that speaks it – so, whether a language interprets a specific reality in Greenland, in Egypt or in Alice Springs (Australia), that language is intrinsically linked to the way a speaker conceptualises his/her reality, not any other.
And so we get to the point I’m trying to make today – my language is intrinsically intertwined with the way I interpret the world. Sure, most of us have been influenced by the apprenticeship of one or various other languages throughout our lives, but if I have learnt to interpret my reality through the tools given to me by that language and that culture and not any other, if you now insist on imposing on me a different way of conceptualising the world, you are removing the very manner by which I learnt to process my thoughts, the way I cognitively make sense of what surrounds me.
The Catalan state
On the 11th of September 2012, over 1.5 million people marched along the streets of the city of Barcelona, and many others did so in smaller towns and rural areas to claim their right to freely use their own language in a self-governing newly erected European state.
It’s only fair. The catalan language is NOT a dialect, just like a lot of people I talked to outside the European continent seem to be confused about. The Catalan language developed centuries ago from Vulgar Latin and diverge from Old Occitan between the 11th and 14th centuries. For nearly a thousand years now, Catalan has been the linguistic and cultural tool that has helped the people in the northern and southern regions of the Pyrenees interpret the reality around them. Many of them did not have any other means to conceptualise and structure this landscape, this way of life – my grandparents, for instance, born and raised in the province of Girona, despite all the wars and restrictions imposed by the fascist Franco government, did not know how to speak Spanish and could only communicate in Catalan.
The Basque country
From the East to the West of the Pyrenees – the regional elections held yesterday in the Basque country saw the separatist coalition, EH Bildu, become the region’s second biggest political group, taking a quarter of the vote. The coalition has managed to bring together peaceful separatists with former members of the previous armed separatist group Eta who are no longer banned from parliamentary politics. Bildu won 21 of the 75 seats in the regional parliament. The overall winner, however, was the moderate Basque Nationalist party (PNV), which backs a gradual march towards an as yet undefined form of independence.
What does this mean? It means that the people of this tiny, rainy, but extremely picturesque land might finally have a chance to peacefully take back what for years has been fought for with violent means. It means that their language, their mythology, their historical memory, their cultural idiosyncrasies might end up having the political framework they deserve. In fact, the Basque language in its all uniqueness, still baffles most language historians to the point that as of today it remains a “language isolate” or a language with no demonstrated anscestor or link to any other language.
No to the Hispanicisation of catalan children
But what it all means is, what the catalan and the basque voices we hear today are telling us is that the political games, the monarchic battles and the repressive policies that have for centuries put a lid on these unique worldviews need to come to terms with the fact that linguistic and cultural imperialism will not be accepted in a modern European union. Stagnant, regressive attitudes like those recently put forward by Spain’s Minister for Culture and Education, Mr Wert, do not deserve to and will not be entertained no matter how much applause they receive in the government ranks because the “Hispanicisation of catalan children in school” is no longer an acceptable proposition (not that it ever was). We should not allow that a state that is part of a progressive institution like the European Union, winner of a Nobel Prize, calls for the appropriation of these children’s identity, the appropriation of their chance to grow as part of a community of speakers that share a cognitive framework, a tool to conceptualise their environment while respecting other languages and other worldviews.
So, down with Mr Wert’s hispanicisation, down with the ignorance and lack of respect that denies us our worldview, down with the policies and restrictions that want to “include” us where we do not belong. Stop involving the people in your power games and give them their very well-deserved chance to build a peaceful future in their own language.