Language and culture and stuff…..

Ragh. One week has passed and I am yet to do a blog. So here we go.  Haven’t thought much about it so unsure if it will make sense/flow. There are a whole lot of things swirling around in my head with regards to language and culture.  So anyway….

Language. It allows us to communicate with people, which for me, is like breathing. Ever since I could talk I’ve been known as a chatterbox, someone who talks all the time. And its true that I’ll explode if i dont get to exhale all the thoughts and feelings that build up inside.  So language has always been an important thing for me.

I grew up speaking English as my primary language, however, I didn’t grow up in the typical New Zealand community.  Being Maori, I grew up with te reo Maori (the Maori language) being spoken around me a lot of the time, whether it was through my grandparents, extended whanau (family) or at school. I distinctly remember the age where I started to realise that many of the words I used in everyday life, were not understood by the general population. I once went to the dairy (NZ’s word for ‘convenient store’), to buy some ‘hinu’ (the Maori word for dripping/animal fat, which is used for cooking), and the shopkeeper had no idea what I was looking for. The other incident that has stuck in my mind was when I said I had a ‘mamae puku’ (sore stomach) to a Samoan friend. Once again I received a blank look in response. Even here in France, there are often times when the first word I can think of is in te reo. While I did spend one term of highschool learning te reo, I never continued. So I am not fluent and can’t for the life of me construct a complete sentence, unless that includes a phrase from my mihi or waiata.

I also grew up surrounded by a multiplicity of other cultures and ethnic groups. In fact Pakeha (NZ Europeans) were a minority in my community. I was influenced most notably by the Cook Island and Samoan cultures, as well as Tokelaun, Niuean and Fijian. I heard a menagerie of languages around my street, my school and the wider neighbourhood. At school, teachers would often speak their mother tongue to students of the same ethnic group and throughout primary and intermediate school, poly club (poly being short for polynesian) was compulsory. This is where I learned the traditional song and dance of all these other cultures.  I didn’t realise this wasn’t completely ‘normal’ until I moved to Auckland, where I once danced Cook Island styles to a song at a party.  My Pakeha friends looked at me in awe, asking how a white girl knew how to, ahem, dance like a brown girl? I looked at them dumbfounded. What did they mean, ‘how did i know how to dance like this’?! The more pertinant question was how they did not know how to dance like this? Needless to say it was a massive revelation to realise that most New Zealanders didn’t grow up doing the hula or the sasa, which I thought was completely normal. I never questioned that these were some of things that made Aotearoa, New Zealand.

My friends came from an array of different ethnic groups and were either migrants themselves, or were the children or grandchildren of migrants. When I would call them on the phone or visit their houses it was only normal to see and hear their language, customs, food and traditions being kept alive. Tongan, Fijian Indian, Chilean, Cambodian, Laotian, Tahitian, Phillipino. I took this diversity for granted.  I didn’t realise that loads of New Zealanders can spend their whole childhood without coming into contact with someone of a completely different cultural background. That they can spend their whole life without having to temporarily abandon what they regarded as ‘normal’, in order to show respect for the norms, traditions or customs of their friends or friends of the family.  In fact, it wasn’t until I went to highschool that I realised that there was a wider New Zealand culture, the Pakeha New Zealand culture, which was projected through the mainstream media as the culture of NZ.  But there was a massive disparity between that culture and what I was experiencing in life. I don’t recall, for instance, seeing very many Samoans on TV in the 1980s. This was despite the fact I was surrounded by them at home!

At seventeen years of age, I went on an overseas Classics trip to Italy and Greece. My classmates and I spent a good 6 months learning Italian, and a little bit of Greek. I can’t say we learnt much, aside from rote learning key phrases and vocabulary but that doesn’t matter to me. The point is that we put in the effort to learn the local languages.

When I studied toward my tourism diploma, I also learnt a bit of Spanish and Japanese. Once again it was mostly limited to rote learning, rather than comprehension.  In any case it wasn’t the last that I saw of either language.  With respect to Spanish, I’ve spent a total of thirteen months learning the language and this includes being immersed for four months in South America. I also spent one semester learning Spanish at university.  I have a feeling that espanol will continue to make an appearance in my life (not hard given that I’m spending 10 days in Seville next month!). As for Japanese, I spent two weeks in Japan in the year 2013. While I have to admit that my attempt to learn the language was pitiful, I did pick up enough to get by. Thankfully the Japanese are so so forgiving as hosts to their country and they make it easy to be a clumsy tourist.

Now that I am in France, I’m able to utilise those components of my brain which have been exercised in learning all these other languages and customs.  And precisely because those parts of my brain have been flexed so often, picking up French vocabulary has been relatively easy. The difficulty, however, is that I have never mastered a language before. This includes mastering the complexity of grammar. So this is very new for me, trying to perfect a language with the aim of integrating as much as possible into the daily life of a community.

On the one hand, many people are supportive of my efforts to learn French. Some even think my level of French is quite impressive. Perhaps it is, for someone who only moved to France a year ago. Perhaps it is, compared to other Anglophones or foreigners. But to put it into perspective, I have half a lifetime of language learning behind me. And while my successes with language allow me to feel triumphant, I still feel there is a long way to go to mastering the language. This is the frustrating part. Knowing that there is still a long road ahead.

On the other hand, there are those who like to initiate conversation with the phrase, “you’re in France, so you must speak French”. No shit Sherlock?! It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that as I live in France, and despite conversing with them in French, I might already know this. Their assumption, of course, is that I expect them to speak English. Often they assume that because I look European, come from the commonwealth nation of New Zealand and because I speak Engish, that I am essentially English. After incorrectly ascertaining this, they proceed to give me a lesson on the importance of understanding, appreciating and respecting their language and culture. Without even bothering to recognise their own failure to do so.

Those simple words – understanding, appreciating and respecting culture. That is who I am. That is what I have been breathing my whole life. Of course I will do these things, in fact, I am already on this journey.  More to the point, I do not take the English language for granted or expect anyone to speak to me in English. I am not even particularly interested in it as a subject (though recognise the value of it). It is simply my maternal language. I have never understood the grammar; my Cannons Creek accent isn’t even a typical Kiwi accent, let alone a proper English one. And far from expecting that everybody should speak English or do things my way, I know very well that communication, norms and customs come in many shapes and sizes.

All that being said, I don’t see that it is solely my duty to make an effort in France. As a new migrant to France and as someone who is only too happy to learn about the culture, I believe it is also their responsibility to learn about me and my culture, at least to help me integrate.  Better yet, it will help them to understand why it is that I might do something which they consider strange or incorrect, when in fact it is simply part of my culture that I have conciously chosen to hold onto (like taking my shoes off at the front door, as we do in Maori households).

While it might be the case that I don’t expect anyone to speak to me in English, sometimes I do think that it is more important to overcome language barriers and communicate according to each persons strengths or ability. By this I mean if someone’s English is much stronger than my French, then for the sake of understanding one another, why not speak in English? Why speak French purely based on the principle that I am physically in France? (and which, in my defence, I do all the time anyway). I think it is particularly important if the relationship is symbiotic of sorts. I don’t see this as a lack of respect for the language or culture. To the contrary, it is because I do respect someone and their culture that I wish to understand them as best as I can.

And you know what? It is the most amazing thing to have a conversation in multiple languages, without there being any expectations as to what language this will be conducted in. I remember a time in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before I could speak French but was competent in Spanish. I was drinking with a Canadian guy who could speak English and French but not Spanish, and a French guy who could speak French and Spanish but very little English. We spoke for hours interchanging between English, Spanish and French in order to communicate with one another.  It often happens in France, where I might be able to speak English with someone who can understand English but prefers to respond in French. Or the inverse, where I’ll speak in French to a French person, who will respond to me in English. That is my zone, where I am at ease. Traversing between cultures and languages. Sometimes you’re just so involved in a story or conversation that you don’t even realise who is speaking what language. You just get lost enjoying the pleasure of conversing with others, regardless of their culture or mother tongue.

So yes, language and culture are integral to who we are as individuals.  They allow us to communicate with our kin, and provide us with a point of reference from where we can make sense of the world. But when you can overcome some of the barriers that are constructed by our language and culture; when you arrive at a place where you can comfortably put your own assumptions and expectations to the side; when you can learn from, understand and respect one another in spite of language and in spite of differences, that is the coolest thing of all 🙂


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