Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Common Language for a Common Understanding

Fiji Times' - Off the Wall 08th August, 2012    By JsBhagwan

When I was in school, I once was walking past a classroom when I saw a poster pasted on one of its walls. The poster read, “He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kunst and Alterthum”.
I was learning French at that time so in my teenage smugness I thought I was quite safe in this area, until I saw another quote on the wall which read, “Any man who does not make himself proficient in at least two languages other than his own is a fool: Martin H. Fischer”. My smugness disappeared very quickly.

When my parents had childen, they reasoned that, as English was the global language and the language of academia, it was important that their children be fluent in the English language. As a result all three of their children were raised with English as our first language. This was a great advantage during our education and on our entering the workforce.

However, I had to teach myself Hindi by watching Indian films and while I understood Hindustani, my speaking it was a rather unpleasant experience –embarrassing for me and confusing for the listener. However, when I became a minister of religion, serving in the Indian Division of the Methodist Church meant that I had to not only converse but preach in Hindi – both in Hindustani and Fiji-Hindi (when the need arose).

Both my primary and secondary schooling in Fiji were devoid of learning “vernacular” languages so I had to rely on learning Fijian / i-Taukei language through conversations with my friends, and from trying to break down the last or surnames of i-Taukei to understand their meanings.

I used to admire my father who spoke all three languages well and was often quite jealous of my cousins who lived in communities in which both Indo-Fijians and i-Taukei spoke each other’s languages fluently.  

I have been following this early round of constitutional consultations and am mulling over what little contribution I may offer to this process. In doing so, the issue of language, among other things, is something that I have been reflecting on. The question I have been asking myself is, “would having the Fijian / i-Taukei language as the National or Common language of Fiji help in development of a national identity and a breakthrough in the search for true unity in diversity in Fiji?”

I would like to think so.

I have deliberately suggested that it become our national or common language rather than official language because in terms of documentation I believe we still need all three major languages in Fiji to remain as the official languages. This is a reflection of the reality of our diverse communities. English of course is still the dominant language (the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese) and the language of education and international communication.

At the same time I believe that the i-Taukei/Fijian language is something that is unique and that we as a nation should not only strive to protect but share make use of. Hindi-Urdu is the third most spoken language in the world, with some 333 million speakers (, while the indigenous language of Fiji has not even one percent of that. 

I have for almost a year lived in South Korea and part of my academic programme includes 6 hours a week of written and oral Hangumal or Korean language. While most South Koreans I know, study the English language as an academic subject from elementary to high school, they a very reluctant to speak it, except when trying to explain something to foreigners or to improve their language skills.

The issue of Korean national language is something very close to the heart of Koreans because they know what is like to have lost their language – or to have their language taken away from them, to be more precise.

In the first half of the 20th century, under Japanese domination, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, and were forbidden to use Korean language in schools and business. Korean language newspapers were shut down. Had Japanese rule not ended in 1945, the fate of indigenous Korean language, culture, and religious practices would have been extremely uncertain.

From this perspective it is possible for non- i Taukei Fijians to understand how many of our indigenous brothers and sisters must feel.  In this process of nation building we are asking the indigenous people of these islands to share their name, their home and their resources with people who are descendents of settlers (some voluntary, some compelled) who also consider Fiji their home. 

While each cultural group has the right and should be encouraged to preserve their own traditions, the first step to living as one people is to speak one language. That language should not be limited to the foreign language of English (regarded by some as a language of imperialism and foreign domination) but should be the language that marks us all as people of Fiji. 

I believe that the time has come for every Fijian to speak the native language of Fiji.  This means there must be a concerted effort for conversational Fijian/i-Taukei language to be taught to all students at school, regardless of ethnicity. It also means that remedial language instruction is necessary for those who were not taught the language at primary school level. Community groups and civil society organisations have an important part to play in this process. However it does not have to be just the work of the education ministry or civil society – including religious groups. This is something that individuals can do on a one-to-one basis or among a group of friends.

Maybe then we will be able to really understand one another. Maybe then we will come a step closer to being one people. Maybe then we will be truly worthy of the name Fijian.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”

1 comment:

  1. I would be interested to know what you think of Esperanto. Do you support its wider use?