Language as a window to different worlds


Recently my son and I went to a talk by Tina Makereti, a local author who has earned international acclaim for her writing. I have to confess, I was not familiar with her fiction writing, but I had a read an essay of hers in 'Tell you what: Great New Zealand nonfiction 2015', published by Auckland University Press. Her essay discussed how the inclusion of te reo Maori enriches her writing because words, such as 'whare', 'aroha' and countless others, offer insights into the way that Maori see the world.

While my knowledge of reo is extremely limited (I went through school at a time when the extent of te reo we were exposed to was the Maori translation of 'Run rabbit run' - not very useful in everyday applications). However, I have no difficulty grasping Tina Makereti's message. I lived for six years in Japan and my level of fluency became such that I was actually dreaming in Japanese. More importantly perhaps, living in Japan and speaking the language exposed me to the reality that people see the world in very different ways - and these differing world views are manifested in language. Effectively, this creates the possibility for different worlds (sometimes referred to as geomentalities) to coexist inside a person's mind - removing the culturally imposed limits that we have grown up taking for granted.

New Zealanders are predominantly monolingual. Many of us know a smattering of French, German or Spanish that we learned at highschool, but little more. As a consequence, few of us enjoy the enrichment of understanding that people see the world in different ways. When New Zealand politicians or other leaders talk about the benefits of learning other languages, these are usually framed in utilitarian (invariably economic) terms. When Japan's economy was booming, everyone rushed to learn Japanese; when China's economy began its meteoric rise, people rushed to learn Chinese ... But money (effectively greed) is not a good motivation for learning another language, which should be underpinned by a commitment to understand another culture. A much better - and more sustainable - motivation is the desire to expand the mind to embrace the richness of worldviews that exist around the world. With the added bonus of becoming better world (and New Zealand) citizens in the process.

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