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Language and prejudice



On the 31st of January, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union. On that day, residents of a tower block in the ancient city of Norwich were greeted by notices headed Happy Brexit Day. 

Two children speaking and holding up a globe (Illustration by Chris Johnston)

The notice stated that ‘we do not tolerate people speaking languages other than English in these flats,’ and included an invitation to people who wished to speak their own languages to return to their countries of origin. The gist of the notice was that ‘we’ are reclaiming our country, our once great island, after ‘infection’ by other ethnic groups. There was, of course, no indication of who ‘we’ might be.

It was a relief to learn that the notices were speedily taken down, and that the offence was reported to the local police, who announced they were investigating the incident as a hate crime. And local neighbourhoods protested against evidence of such prejudice, with the main messages being ‘Norwich is just not like that,’ and ‘Everybody is welcome here.’

But I have been bemused to read the result of a recent poll taken in Britain. It suggests that 26 per cent of people feel ‘uncomfortable’ when hearing foreign languages spoken. Me, I feel envious, simply wishing that I was more of a linguist. I admit I even envy my own children, who are bilingual. They switch between Greek and English so easily it is as if they have a button in the relevant part of their brains, while my own switch-over entails a definite and possibly audible grinding of cerebral gears.

As children in the monoglot Australia of the 1950s, my sister and I realised the attention-grabbing nature of foreign languages. We tried to make up our own language, and enjoyed talking it to each other as we walked suburban streets. Never mind that it was gobbledegook that even we could not understand. People at the shops certainly looked at us, and we hoped they thought we were clever.

I have just read, and it certainly makes sense, that polyglots have always been in the majority. Geography has to be a contributing factor to this; I once knew an immigrant child whose parents, from Central Europe, knew ten languages between them, and there must have been many children like him.

Circumstances also often decide the linguistic future, as I learned when a friend of mine once told me that his parents were Russian and Ukrainian, and that he had learned German and Polish in refugee camps. When he was seven he came to Australia and learned English. The same must be happening to the Asian and African immigrants of today.


'In youth, research indicates, polyglots show more mental flexibility, are more tolerant of other points of view, and develop the capacity to be good listeners. They also see nothing peculiar in moving between two or more worlds.'


But even the humblest peasant, at least in an earlier Europe, spoke dialect at home, a smattering of another language to the feudal master, and listened to Latin in church, mastering certain phrases along the way. With the rich and aristocratic, the learning of languages was automatic. Elizabeth I, for example, spoke and was literate in six languages.

And it seems that learning other languages does have a positive effect on the brain. These days, tackling another language is now regularly recommended for elderly people. Research proves that learning another language is just about the hardest work the brain can do, so that it comes as no surprise to learn that neuroscientists consider the learning of a new language a valuable weapon against the feared dementia. Just the exposure to new ideas is important, as I thought when I heard my father complain about languages such as French and Greek having genders.

In old age, the cultivation of memory and the ability to concentrate are important, but in youth, research indicates, polyglots show more mental flexibility, are more tolerant of other points of view, and develop the capacity to be good listeners. They also see nothing peculiar in moving between two or more worlds.

This last became evident to me when my then ten-year-old son was at a Greek-Australian gathering. Someone said to him, ‘I didn’t know you can speak Greek.’

‘Of course I can,’ he replied, ‘I’m Greek.’ Not long afterwards, someone else expressed surprise at the fact that he could speak English. ‘Of course I can, I’m Australian.’

That long-ago boy is now doing his best to ensure that his own sons are bilingual. And they study German at school.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, language



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Existing comments

Although an admirer of Winston Churchill, this quote seems a little lopsided (as the English can be about their language): "Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English, I would make them all learn English, and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat." Written in 1930. Now, we appreciate the richness and variety of languages in a different era. And female voices are heard.

Pam | 22 March 2020  

I agree with your sentiments. I have three grandchildren who are bilingual. One five year old can now speak three languages as a result of a move to Norway for work by her parents. It always amazes me how they can all switch from English to Spanish, Japanese or Norwegian depending on to whom they are addressing their conversation. They are very lucky children.

Marilyn Hoban | 23 March 2020  

At 99 yrs old I’m an ex-teacher aged-care resident. Most others here don’t read and don’t often converse, through dementia. For 8 years I’ve been the only resident using a laptop. I attribute my lucidity to many-decade frequent speaking, reciting and praying in my English mother tongue as well as in French, Italian and Esperanto plus snippets of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. [] Kevin S. //

Kevin G Smith | 23 March 2020  

I enthusiastically endorse the value of language study as a memory aide - guided by expert advice I started learning more languages three years ago and I have found that my failing memory seems to be becoming healthier. (Assuming, of course, that I remember correctly what it used to be like!) Marilyn's mention of children learning other languages because of their parents' work patterns reminds me of a situation many years ago in St Peter's Basilica. I was standing behind an Australian diplomat, at Mass with his young family. It was at a time when we were changing over to the vernacular. When the priest said "Il signore sia con voi", (The Lord be with you) the four year old Australian boy in front of me said "Listen, Daddy. Father just said "Dominus vobiscum".

Dennis Sleigh | 23 March 2020  

Brilliant article Gillian. Thank you. You have made the decision for me by quoting research about language learning and its positive effects on dementia. I have been appointed Principal of a school in Papua New Guinea and am fascinated by their Tok Pisin (not Pidgin English as I learned) I am determined to learn as much of it during my time there as I can. For now all I know is looklook na walkabout which greeted me at Port Moresby airport on my very first visit following my appointment. It is a Traffic Notice which means : Look around you and walk carefully.

Judelinr | 23 March 2020  

There's nothing more fun than sitting quietly in some foreign restaurant, salon or bar while the local conversation flows around you... then politely speaking in their language - particularly if they were speaking about you. The only regret I have from learning Latin for a few years is the current lack of Romans to practice with. Apps like Google translate are useful but diminish the respect that is earned by learning a language and the immediate engagement of those who appreciate the effort.

ray | 23 March 2020  

As a child in (then) Tanganyika I was jealous of children a few doors away who were of French origin and happily moved from French with their parents to Swahili with the Africans and English between themselves. My own Swahili was rudimentary but when I went back to Kenya after 40 years, words kept appearing unprompted in various circumstances. On the other hand when visiting Noumea I used my rusty schoolboy French and was answered in English!

Joe | 23 March 2020  

Thank you for a very relevant article, Gillian. The people in Norwich who wrote that hateful and discriminatory pamphlet have forgotten one important piece of history. They have not stopped to consider why Britain has migrants from around the world. When the British ruling class decided to colonise many countries to steal their resources with little concern for the human rights of their inhabitants, they should have realised that in the future there would be migration of these people to Britain. as a result Then, later with the British Empire waning, British leaders sent their young people to fight in unnecessary US wars around the globe and we all know that wars cause great upheaval where they are fought and huge numbers of refugees. Surely nations that contribute to the refugee problem have an obligation to assist those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil. I too admire people who are multilingual. I speak "market"Malay and a smattering of French,, Spanish and Pidgin English, but I wish that I could speak them fluently. And another reason to admire multilingual people is that they tend to be more respectful and understanding of other people. Since WW2, our nation has become more multicultural and multilingual. This has been a very important factor in breaking down barriers between people. As we face disasters like harsh weather events, massive levels of pollution and pandemics like the COVID-19 virus, we need world leaders to cooperate more fully. This means having leaders who show respect and compassion for other peoples.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 23 March 2020  

Being a monoglot I just feel a great sense of frustration. My wife was at least able to buy stamps and an ice-cream in France while stood by completely disconnected from the transaction. All I could do was smile stupidly. How I regretted not paying attention in my high school French classes but languages a best learnt very early when brains are at the most flexible.

Stephen | 23 March 2020  

I'm Australian-born of Anglo (including Lowlands Scots) English-speaking origin. My grand-mother spoke standard English with an educated Scottish voice. When she left Scotland in 1919 to join her Aussie husband - her mother wrote an acrostic verse in her farewell autograph book written in Scots (of the Robert Burns variety - "Keep aye a thocht for us at hame as roond the fire ye sit..."). A grand-father was a Kentish man (arriving in Australia in 1912 aged 18). My childhood was much influenced by a Shakespearean version of English in which I could speak - extempore prayers - our model being the 1611 King James Version of the Bible. At a short course at the University of Canterbury for those wishing to teacher English as Another Language I answered a question from the course teacher leader (Richard D Lewis) which proved me immediately as a speaker of standard Australian English (with a seemingly imperceptible difference from standard English of England) which surprised me - as a teacher of English (literature/writing) in Australia. I became far more alert to the ways in which English was spoken thereafter. And over much of the rest of my teaching life - in Australia and in other places - teaching a standard and/or appropriate colloquial form. So - varieties of English. At school - years of study of French and Latin - living and teaching in Spain and Germany - and Japan - added other degrees of competency - and some Viet-namese - and even some greetings in Greek! I love that story of Gillian's son who was fluent in two languages and fluent in his identity depending on reference to which of his languages.

Jim KABLE | 23 March 2020  

I agree that the learning of languages is a positive thing and the effect on the brain is well documented as you so correctly say. The reasons that we in the UK are so suspicious of foreign tongues has nothing to recommend it : my grandfather was beaten at school and called stupid because he spoke Gaelic with the older members of his family. Let us hope that communication continues and that we learn to understand each other in these difficult times.

Maggie | 25 March 2020  

An interesting article with as interesting responses Gillian. I think there many bi or trilingual Australian kids like yours these days and that's a thoroughly good thing. I think there is a difference between learning living languages for their usefulness and learning dead languages, like Latin and Classical Greek, as an intellectual exercise. The death of Latin was almost assured when the Mass was said in the vernacular. There is an attempt to revive the Latin Mass. How far it will succeed and whether it will herald in a genuine Latin revival I have no idea. I remember someone telling a former Classics master of his that the latter had taught Latin, not just as if it were a dead language, but as if it had never lived. Most languages, living and dead, were taught like this in Australia in the 1960s from textbooks with those dreadful exercises. Could I ask the way to a hotel in Boulogne in my schoolboy French when it was new? Not on your life. The French would either die laughing or ignore me. Both.

Edward Fido | 26 March 2020  

Interestingly those who demand that people who speak 'foreign' languages other than 'English' show their own ignorance of English and its roots based upon Latin, Greek, French, German etc., its flexibility in usage an adoption of new words; free jazz. Further, effective communication is only about 40% 'language' whilst the remainder is shared understanding, culture, body language etc. Finally, language is not linked so strongly with education nor class but need, exposure and reinforcement; many vocationally qualified and/or workers in the EU who can communicate fluently in several languages (especially near borders).

Andrew Smith | 28 March 2020  

Is 'coronavirus' an English word or an international idiom?

roy chen yee | 28 March 2020  

When I was a schoolgirl over 60 years ago and began to learn French I felt excited and empowered. Many years later in England I taught French at evening classes for adults. Some of the older students shared their delight in the opportunity to learn a language as their schooling did not include this. Speaking another language , however imperfectly, opens possibilities in communication with people of another nationality and understanding between the nations.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 30 March 2020  

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