Updated: Mar 11, 2021
By Jessica L.
“I speak two tongues; my coloniser’s better than my mother’s. This is the first problem”
- Anne Teriba.
After the White Australia Policy was lifted in 1973, the vast majority of non-European immigrants coming in were professionals or skilled workers and were required to pass a language test. Yet their accents continue to be associated with poorer education and generally correlate with a lack of respect in interactions with the white-majority.
“Don’t you want to speak to them?”
Mum holds her phone up, raising it to the ceiling to catch the signal of the incoming call. Her ringtone brings forth painfully awkward memories of aunties and uncles jokes you didn’t get and the fast chatter that escaped your understanding. It’s not that you don’t want to speak to them, it’s just that you don’t know how. Your parents faces fit perfectly inside the frame of the screen and the picture feels complete without you. As you leave the room, you hear them exchanging stories, their boisterous laughter and the natural ease of their conversation.
For first generation immigrants, learning English was a bright sticker pressed to their shirt, displaying their Australian-ness and willingness to integrate. For second and third generation Australians, it has morphed into a greater loss. Fighting for acceptance in Australia is now achieved by eroding the foundations of who we are. How did our language, the orchestral swelling of voices fade into a haunting echo in our minds and silence from our own tongues?
“Learn English” a Translation:
1. Higher Education.
2. More Opportunity.
3. Greater Success.
It is never explicit, but you know that if you learn to speak the right language in the right way, it is an investment that will grant you a lifetime of credibility. At school, everyone is dressed like you. They are learning their ABCs, their 123s, and you’re learning with them. Every year, come March 21st you find walls plastered with orange posters. Funnily enough though, ‘Harmony Day’ fails to teach us that assimilation is not a practice of the past but a process that continues to dilute non-English speakers within the white middle-class majority.
“Diversity” is one of many multicoloured toppings on a perfect vanilla cupcake. A sweet treat to pacify, but unfulfilling and insubstantial. Questions of language are always determined by questions of power. There is no such thing as an apolitical classroom, and so personal beliefs and biases are introduced and reproduced. It is necessary to learn English here, but it does not have to be taught to us as the language of wealth, of opportunity and of success.
Foreignness is a punchline and you don’t want to be a joke. At work you see the grimace on your manager’s face as she whispers, “ugh they can’t speak English” gesturing toward certain customers. You just nod, restock shelves and give “that” smile. To be offended is to compromise your position, to admit your foreignness. If you’re (un)lucky you will hear, “you’re one of the good ones, at least you can speak English.”
“Speak English” a Translation:
1. Be Intelligent
2. Be Eloquent
3. Be more like “us”
The plane begins its descent and a gentle tap wakes you. Your parents are wide awake, excited at the prospect of walking down familiar streets, past buildings that fill their childhood memories and of holding people that linger in their thoughts of home.
As you land, sepia coloured family photographs come to life. Your aunties and uncles all comment on how much you’ve grown. Their tongues bear the burden of their own broken English, but they persevere with full interest in hearing your response. Not being able to speak English is a sign of foreignness here and not being able to speak Indonesian is a sign of foreignness there.
Then a pair of hands pull you close and you see your grandfather’s smile. He showers you with terms of endearment, offering a sweet and flowing symphony. They all pause, waiting for your reply. Your mouth opens only to feel the tight grip of English spiralling itself around your throat, catching your breath. They wait for you to reciprocate but your tongue has been tied for so long. Tired by the many knots that you have neglected to undo. A mind furiously thinking in English cannot find the loose threads of it’s ‘mother tongue.’
Their excited smiles begin to dim and they look around at each other. Your parents whisper in your ears, urging you to speak. The words creep out before your can catch them, “I can’t.”
“I can’t” a Translation:
1. I can’t respond.
2. I can’t fit myself in here.
3. I can’t remember how I lost this.
Somehow language, a tool for communication has become the great silencer. This silence is what lies between my grandfather and I, when all my thoughts can’t be expressed in the same exuberance I can offer in English. It leaves a gap between my Aunt and I, when I ask her to slow down so I can join in on the punchline. It is my parents asking me a question, but me responding in English without a second thought. It is self-inflicted amnesia, the uprooting of my own roots, the burying of unceasing shame that comes from the knowledge that deep down I have truly forgotten.
“Ungrateful Silence” a Translation
1. The experience of denying your own heritage because of the discrimination tied to it.
2. The experience of being unable to speak your mother tongue because you unintentionally, intentionally assimilated.
3. The experience of realising all you have lost.
The undeniable reason why I neglected Indonesian - a vibrant, sarcastic and wonderful language - was shame. I knew that I would have to come to terms with the fact that regardless of my ethnicity I didn’t know how it felt to be Indonesian. I didn’t know enough about my culture, my history and my family.
Whilst face-timing my grandma, I felt the rough, static noise fill up my bedroom, and I realised we didn’t utter more than two sentences to each other. The conversation was over before it began. The silence of her eyes staring into mine was the mirror to my shame and my ingratitude towards my first language, fragmented and broken.
The pain of realising that you have forgotten is hard to face but it is better than numbing the pain with self-denial. It’s a bitter reality to face, it is easier to hide in the silence, that way you can just respond with “I only speak english” and be blameless. The weight of the shame will numb you, trying to convince you that you are innocent and that you are faultless. It whispers that it is protecting you, until the forgetting turns to the forgotten.
Right now, I’m slowly letting go of my dependency on English and starting to pick up the pieces of my Indonesian. Even if it’s just a mouthful of words or even if there's nothing, it’s an invitation to start afresh. There is a sadness in realising that you have forgotten, but it can be the start of something more.
If you know nothing you can learn everything. Language can be relearned with enough time and patience. Whoever is reading this I hope you will learn to understand the beauty of your mother tongue. The way it can shape meaning in ways that English cannot. If you have forgotten that’s okay because we can learn together. Without loneliness or shame we can find a grateful voice.
Saya akan membina jiwa kedua saya (I will nurture my second soul).
At The Pvblication we collectively research, write and review each other’s work to the best of our abilities. Creating this piece required an incredible amount of dedication and effort. For such tiresome efforts those involved deserve recognition. Thank you to the team.