Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity

I’ve probably talked about being a TCK before on here, in an “oh, by the way” sort of way (actually, I’m not convinced I am a TCK, but I read a statistic a few years ago that something like 80% of TCKs doubt their TCK-ness, and most of the time it seems like a better explanation for some of my weirdness than me simply being weird, even though I was born and raised in my mother’s home country). Even though I’m Australian, I went to the German Ethnic School, and I spend a lot of time on the internet claiming to be a Scottish Gael. I’ve never really felt the need to explain why all this is, really.

But recently, there’s been a bit of kerfuffle in the language-learning community over “eco-linguism” vs. “linguo-tourism”. Insults have been slung about selfishness and about thoughtless name-calling. You’re colonialistic, or you’re ignorant, and so on. If you really want to know what’s going down, go and read about it for yourself. This post is based on a comment I made over on Loving Language.

colonialism

The picture.

It was probably the picture at the top of the screen that set off that rant-like comment. I’d been mostly ignoring the whole debacle, but a single picture turned “linguistic colonialism” from an abstract concept to something that hit a little too close to home. Other things seem to have worked their way into the rant, too. Things which have been simmering for probably a long while. Conversations I’ve had, articles I’ve read and written. Things not worth commenting on individually, but which all contribute to the whole which resulted in this reaction I had to a simple picture.

The thing is, colonialism is something close to me. Close to my family. And not in the best way. It’s something I’ve learnt to ignore and not talk about, particularly since I’m working in an ethnic radio station side-by-side Indians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Malaysians.

It’s not just because I live in Australia, and I have relatives who will happily refer to my family as “living in the colonies”. It’s because both of my father’s grandfathers served in the Indian Army. It’s because my grandmother was born in British-occupied Lahore and my grandfather spent his youth in British-occupied Malaya. It’s because my great-grandparents knew each other in India long before my grandparents met and married in the UK. It’s because my grandfather taught me to count the chickens in Bahasa, and because I’ve been known to say “jaldee, jaldee” to little kids to get them to move along.

And it’s because all this is shameful. “Colonialism” is such a bad word, particularly in Australia, where it means “white invaders killing the locals”. Home Rule is a good thing, and it didn’t dispossess hundreds and thousands of Anglo-Indians who had never known a home other than Lahore or Lucknow, Culcutta or Bombay. My grandmother was stopped in the customs queue every time because her paperwork said she was born in Pakistan, but I didn’t even realise until I was a teenager that my family had spent two generations in India, or that Urdu (“Hindustani”) was part of my vocabulary.

Colonialism isn’t a clear-cut thing. I’ve known Aboriginal people to get stuck into me – and any white person – for maliciously coming over here and invading. It’s a major point of debate, argument, name-throwing and campaigning here at the moment. I don’t speak back against it, because my family was literally in the army that did it – if not here, then in other countries like here.

And you know why that is? Because after the English invaded our land, my clan had the good sense to be traitorous and swear allegiance to the English (well, German) king. That’s the only reason we’re one of the largest and most powerful clans today, and why we weren’t killed and scattered across the globe like so many of our brother and sister Gaels, most of whom won’t recognise us as Gaels because we were Anglicised so quickly. The colonised had become the colonisers. So many of those “white invaders” in the 18th and 19th centuries in Australia weren’t invaders at all, but refugees, looking for a new home after having lost theirs for one reason or another.

So, do I do the same thing? Or would I, rather, given the money and half a chance? Yeah, sure, I’d travel to Scotland in a heartbeat to immerse myself in the language my ancestors lost. I’m getting more and more curiosity about Lahore, so I wouldn’t half mind visiting this place I’ve only just realised had such an impact on my family. I’d travel the world if I could, yeah. I’d see the sights and have delights on every foreign shore. I’d probably try and learn a bit of the language, and I would almost certainly come away with a few new dishes, just as those evil colonial ancestors of mine did.

I’m pragmatic enough to realise that there are languages I probably should be learning just to exist in my local community. Doing the hospital chaplain thing and realising that I can’t communicate with half the people in the ward. Finding three Italians but exhausting what little I know within a minute with each of them. Greek and Vietnamese and Serbian and Madi: there’s a long list of languages I should come to grips with to be useful in my community.

Is it “colonialism”, then, in this new and negative meaning of the term, to say that they’re not my language, and that frankly I don’t care about them as much as I should? It rankles at me that I’ve lived in Adelaide all my life, but don’t speak the local language, Kaurna, even though there are only a few dozen speakers of Kaurna in the world and all of them speak English first. I can learn community languages for their use, but it’s dying (and reviving) indigenous languages that really make me care.

Learning Gaelic is like discovering part of myself that’s been squashed over the centuries. It doesn’t make sense, here on the other side of the world, but it’s helped me build a community in both countries, and to see the colonial history of Australia in a whole different way. It used to be the third-most-spoken language here. There are now less than 1000 speakers in the whole country.

My family’s been on both sides of the colonialism thing, and it’s easy to emphasise the one side over the other. The Gaels, the indigenous people of Scotland, were invaded and brutalised and suppressed and brainwashed and poorly-treated and re-educated and bribed and helped just as much as the indigenous people of any other country the English invaded were. It’s just that, with our white skin, we blended in after we learnt the language, we joined the military and joined the occupying forces and became half of the “Britain” that formed the British Empire.

My family escaped the Clearances by assimilating, and so even though we lost our lands to the government, we didn’t suffer at English hands. We became part of the hierarchy, part of the establishment, part of the military. So many of the rulers and officials and land-owners and everyone else who made the Clearances happen weren’t English invaders at all, but Scottish landowners – Gaels themselves – who had to turn on their own people to survive.

And my family spent two hundred years on the other side. The British Empire learnt how to build empires on its own soil. Even into the last century, “England” could stand for the whole of the United Kingdom, even though that included Wales and Ireland and Scotland. Every trick that the British Empire ever used to subdue and assimilate and destroy local cultures was trialled and tested and perfected at home, and it was those people on whom it had been trialled and tested and perfected who then carried it out on the next generations.

You see, there, I’m emphasising the “victim” part of my ancestors’ colonialism saga. I shouldn’t do that, because it obscures the truth: my family, my own grandparents and great-grandparents served in the occupying force. There’s a lot of pride in that, pride in the Empire, pride in what was achieved and what it makes us. My cousins speak with posh Public School accents and plan to join the army. My grandmother – that same grandmother who used Scots and Gaelic and Urdu words in her speech, who was so down-to-earth and sensible, cooking in the kitchen and weeding in the garden and teaching me to sew – was one of the most ardent imperialists I’ve ever met. “The Crown can do no wrong”, regional accents have no place on television, and just why “the colonies” want to become republics is a complete mystery.

And that’s a part of me, too, probably more than singing in Gaelic about the Clearances can ever be. And sometimes I need a reality check to remind myself where I really come from.

So I’m a TCK. It’s something borne out of three centuries of colonialism and the resultant generational homelessness. There’s always going to be two warring parts of me, one saying “put down roots, form a community”, and the other one saying, “move already! your horizons are too narrow!” Hopefully one day I’ll be able to do both.

Until then, there’s no use in getting upset over a bunch of twenty-somethings travelling the world and learning languages. They’ll get older and wiser and more pragmatic. They’ll put down roots and get dug into their communities, and their youthful “linguistic tourism” experiences, however colonialistic they might have been, will give them a little more perspective than someone who’s just stayed cemented in the single community all their life, and an extra way of connecting to the others in the community, and of building it up for later generations.

george-campbell-hay

George Campbell Hay in the 1970s. [Gordon Wright]

And as for me, I’ll continue speaking Gaelic, immersing myself in reclaiming that part of my heritage. I’m not the first of my clan – my family – to do so. One hundred and one years ago, George Campbell Hay (who looks scarily like so many male members of my more immediate extended family) was born – I’ve only just discovered that. Like me, he was born and raised English-speaking. Like so many of our clan, he served in the British Army and was an ardent Scottish nationalist. Like me, he was caught by a love of the Gaelic language as a teenager, and he persisted in learning it.

I’ve learnt important world languages. Yes, they’re all European, and I can’t help that. Now, I think, it’s the time for me to learn those endangered languages I’ve mentioned earlier. Learning Gaelic has given me a deeper understanding of language loss. Yes, it’s sad when an immigrant community loses their language, but there’s always the lingering thought that “they still speak it in the homeland”. When indigenous languages die, that’s it. They’re gone.

I’ve been told by people that Gaelic is dying. I’ve been told by people that Gaelic is dead. It’s not, as far as I can see, and I don’t think it ever will die. The numbers of Gaelic-speakers are rising among the younger generations. There’s government support for it. No, the Celtic languages that are alive now aren’t going to die. Two of them already have, and they’ve come back to life.

What about Kaurna? It’s been revived, but it doesn’t have the sort of support of Cornish or Manx. What about Narungga or Pitjantjatjara or Barossadeitsch? Maybe if I took the time to learn them, to build up – even if it’s just with the addition of a single person – those communities, maybe they would start to stand a chance at surviving. Maybe I can begin to undo some of the destruction my ancestors (and all those like them) wrought.

I still get bitten occasionally by a love of some exotic foreign language. Okay, more than occasionally. I’ve been harbouring a secret desire to learn Maori for years. Russian’s been on my list for almost as long, and Arabic is also vying for attention. Would it be so bad, if I had the money, if I travelled to learn one of those languages?

Yes, maybe I wouldn’t stay there indefinitely. Maybe I would. I don’t know that. As I’ve said, I’m a TCK. I’ve a feeling my feet will keep me moving my whole life. Or perhaps I’ll find somewhere I can settle down and contribute. I really don’t know.

But all the while, I am building connections. Maybe not always in my local community. Gaelic is useless as far as the local community is concerned, although it has given me a small handful of people within the same city with whom I now socialise regularly. It’s also given me connections across Australia, connections in Scotland and the potential for connections in Canada and New Zealand and Ireland. Maybe they’re not building my local community. Maybe they are. Maybe they will one day.

Gaelic and German together have helped me understand the immigrant experience, such as it is. Being a white “Anglo-Celtic” immigrant – or the child of a white “Anglo-Celtic” immigrant – is not being an immigrant at all. But you don’t get to lecture me on not understanding what it’s like to have to study in my second language, because I’ve both studied and functioned day-to-day in my second and third and fourth languages. And you don’t get to lecture me on not understanding what it’s like to live in a foreign country, because I’ve been confused by foreign supermarkets and got lost in foreign towns and been unable to communicate with foreign authorities.

And maybe that’s what “linguo-tourism” does, in the end. Yes, maybe all those young twenty-somethings who are going off to spend two or three years splashing all their western money about in some other country can seem young and arrogant and naïve at the moment, and maybe it does seem a bit pointless to spend time in a city and not put down enough roots to stay there, but in the end, if they end up going back to wherever they came from, they’re going to better understand the people who don’t have that choice to go home, and they’re going to be better people, and better communicators, and better community members.

Young people don’t always have the same perspective as someone who’s “been there and done that”. And I say this as a young person. Even I think some of the “linguo-tourism” behaviour seems a little arrogant and spoiled at times, but I won’t judge it as wrong.

Community is important to me. I tried to pretend I didn’t need it for a lot of years. But not everyone’s community is the same, and not everyone’s way of relating to community is the same.

In Gaelic, the first thing one Gael asks when meeting another is not about the weather, it’s about the ceangal. It means “connection” or “link”. We’re all connected, we just need to work out how. Sometimes it’s as simple as speaking the same language (although in a language community that small, it’s rarely just the language, even for someone with no Gaelic-speaking family members like me). From those links, then, we can build our community and our future.

The first title I gave this rant was “Where are you from?” I can answer that, I suppose: “Not here. But also here.”

The second title I gave it was “Why I’m a TCK”. I suppose I’ve answered that one, too: “Colonialism.”

So I’m going to have to settle for giving it less a title and more a collection of nouns. Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity.

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4 thoughts on “Me, Languages, Colonialism, Community and Identity

  1. Marconatrix says:

    TCK ??? Is duilich leam ach chan eil mi ‘ga thuigsinn.

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