What does your Mother Tongue Mean to You?

Australia is one of the world’s most multicultural societies. International Mother Language Day brings us to a place of reflection.

For many Australians, the language they first learned was not English. Our nation is home to a vibrant array of indigenous languages and many diasporas. The Greek-Australian diaspora forms one of the world’s largest Greek communities. A fifth of our population does not speak English at home, and the 2016 census identified more than 300 languages spoken in Australia. Each language offers a different way of seeing the world.

To celebrate International Mother Language Day three people with very different perspectives share what their relationship to their mother language means to them.

Reeham Khandkar (Archaeology Student and AAIA Volunteer)

International Mother Language Day has so much meaning to so many people around the world. For me, it is extra special. When I was a toddler, I didn’t properly understand the concept of language. I don’t remember much from that time except that whatever words were spoken to me were filled with affirmation and love. Gradually I learnt to speak the same way and Bangla became my Mother Language.

At 5 years old, my life of eating, running around, and annoying my parents was suddenly disrupted when my family moved across countries, from our old home in Bangladesh, to our new home in Australia.

Reeham and her twin sister, soon after moving, circa 2005 (Photo courtesy of Reeham Khandkar).

I found myself away from everything that used to encompass my little life and smack in the centre of a buzzing city that was surrounded by blue waters, evil-chip-stealing seagulls, and very odd-sounding humans. Later, of course, I found out that the odd-sounding humans were only just speaking other languages, mainly English. This is when my brain started to form the concept of language. I have a clear memory which remains a pivotal realisation that I was learning a new language. Soon after arriving, I started kindergarten. For the first few months, I observed everything and understood nothing. However, I did know there was lots of playing to do and friends to be made. I specifically remember one day in class my kindergarten teacher told me,

“Put that on your desk.”

“Desk?” That was a word I had never heard of before. I knew I had to go back to my table(?) I remember that. I went back to put down whatever I was carrying down and looked back at her. She smiled and nodded her head encouragingly and I was over the moon. Hey! I remember thinking, I am getting used to this school and learning thing, I’ll have to remember that desk equals table. Eventually, as the years went by I got more proficient in English and my education, surroundings, and media consumption pushed English to the forefront of my mind. It is now the language that I feel most comfortable conveying myself in. However, my parents and family ensured I never forgot the importance of my mother-tongue.

This day is extra special to me because International Mother Language Day has its origins in my very own mother-tongue. The Bangladeshi Language Movement, initiated in 1952, came to fruition to establish Bangla as the country’s national language. The movement was the catalyst to other nationalist movements, it’s efforts finally coming to success in the aftermath of the conflict in 1971. In 1971, my parents, grandparents and many of my family members had lived through a genocide of the Bengali people, with their “crime” being nothing other than defending their own language. The event also known as the Bangladeshi Liberation War, lasted over 8 months and is now known as one of the few armed conflicts in history to be fought for one’s language. This event then became the inspiration for International Mother Language Day. February 21st to this day is celebrated by all Bengalis around the world as the day when the Bangla language won recognition. Now the date also has special meaning for people’s mother languages all around the world. I can never forget the importance of my mother language and what it means to my family and ancestors. I have an instilled pride for my mother-tongue in me and I am very grateful to be able to speak it. Honestly, I wish I was proficient enough to write this post in Bangla.

Growing up bilingual definitely has its perks as well as its confusions, and I would not exchange my experience for the world. Happy International Mother Language Day everyone! Please be proud and give your mother-tongue some love today.

Vrasidas Karalis (Sir Nicholas Laurantus Professor of Modern Greek
Chair of Modern Greek Department
, University of Sydney)
Beyond the cultural and linguistic divide or why should we learn another language?

We all come from somewhere, a specific place with its own customs, traditions, ideas and language. I grew up in Athens, Greece, in a suburb where Armenian, Romanian, Russian, Albanian, Ethiopian and Arabic were spoken daily by refugees and migrants. Together with them, at school we had to learn English and French. The importance of communication between all of us was paramount for the cohesion of our life and our own survival.

Athens Flea Market (photo: Sharon Mollerus, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Language therefore is not only about communication: language is about understanding, knowing and experiencing. First of all language creates what is called the loom of conscience, in the sense that it establishes personal identity and individual self-consciousness. Since the first day we are born, language connects us with the others and offers the possibility to give meaning to our feelings and finally share them with the people around us.

The complexity of this process can be seen in our distinct personal style that each one of us uses words and constructs phrases to communicate thoughts and emotions. At a social level, language offers us the possibility to associate with other people, with the collective memory of our community and ultimately establish a bond with the shared past of our society.

Learning a new language means being re-humanised, becoming historical, gaining a new self-awareness. Language creates a web of meaningful correspondences: by expanding linguistically, we manage to navigate around our world which is usually restricted and somehow limited. By learning another language we open a window to the wide universe of diverse human beings to the many other worlds that exist today around us and we usually ignore, consumed as we are by our everyday struggles.

I will use a platitude, an almost trivial expression since the time of Socrates. By learning another language we learn who we are and explore the limits of our existence. Language gives us a navigational map over reality, helps us to understand how other people feel and how we can relate to them.

A second language expands the limits of our universe and enables us to understand nuances and shades of meaning, by making our sentences more meaningful and expressive. Today language suffers not from what was called the crisis of meaning but because communication is gradually transformed into mechanised and somehow instrumentalised tool. Young people in particular repeat constantly the clichés of popular culture, mechanically manufactured songs and advertising slogans that simply mean nothing even to the people who produce them. By studying in depth our own or learning another language, we delve into the thoughts of other people, who are different to ours, and establish a dialogue of minds, even though we will never meet them.

Learning another language therefore gives us a measure of comparison, consciously or subconsciously. It makes the mind establish new connections, new links between events and things and ultimately constructs a  more solid, lucid and fairer picture of the world we live in.

Through education we redefine who we are. We don’t have to be wealthy any more in order to study another language or indeed our own language in depth.

The internet, home education or private education offer new possibilities and new challenges.

The most important aspect of education is it changes the mind that receives it. Stephen Pinker suggests that language gives us a sense of time and space and empowers us to move as physical bodies in the shared world of our existence.

Other neuroscientists suggest that learning languages minimises the danger of developing mental diseases in old age because more centres of the brain are energised.

We learn other languages because we want to form better pictures of the world and clearer perceptions of who we are, where we are coming from and where we belong to. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said: the limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Today cross-cultural communication is crucial for our social stability and mental health. We import from one culture to the other through the medium of language ad we are able to follow changes and predict what the future holds for our world. By doing so we bring people closer we unify the fragmented realities of the modern world and create complete personalities who respect each other’s culture, origin and differences.

Language also is about the adaptation of the mind and therefore it has an immense survival value.

The future will be multilingual: many people are afraid of the domination of English but even English changes through its contact with other languages. We have already started talking about “global Englishes” as you may know and this gives an optimistic perspective beyond the fears of being dominated by one single language and its culture.

The world has already become a unified network of intensely communicating groups and individuals: we are more than in any other historical occasion at the threshold of this new multilingual era and we must be ready.

Lisa Gronich (Linguistics Student and AAIA Volunteer)

I’ve always lived with multiple languages being spoken under the same roof.  As the child of a German mother and a Czech father, both of whom are both deeply connected to their countries of birth, knowing my mother tongues has always been stressed as an important component of my life.  However, growing up in Australia, language has become one of the only parts of my culture I have comprehensively acquired.

I believe language is greatly connected with culture. Knowing one’s language is crucial to understanding your own culture, however it is also not the only thing needed to feel culturally connected to your heritage. I personally feel as though there are a lot of gaps missing in my knowledge of my background, largely linked to the linguistic and cultural isolation of living as a migrant.

Postillae in Bibliam, in Latin and Old High German (ca. 750-1050) Würzburg, Domstift St Kilian. Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 466 (Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. Terms of use: CC-BY-NC 4.0. For more information, please see https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/terms.html).

With my parents being my main source of knowledge on all things culture, they, somewhat unconsciously, get to pick and choose which traditions and customs get passed down to me. The reason that I know my mother languages is only because they valued knowing language. I only know the cultural dishes they enjoy, a selection of media that aligns with their tastes, and the celebrations that are both accessible to us in a foreign land and that they deem important to observe.

This has leaked over into language as well. I can understand virtually anything in Czech and German, and speak them best in informal situations, like I’m used to. Test me in modern slang, or get me to write an essay in German or Czech, and the resulting grammar and attempted vocabulary may be disastrous. I have little experience speaking to people my own age in my mother languages on a regular basis, and with all my family overseas, the time I can communicate exclusively in these tongues is limited to family holidays and occasional phone calls.

Despite all this, I still consider language to be a large part of my identity. And it could be due to this that I decided to pursue linguistics at university. Since commencing it, I’ve learnt a lot about the languages I speak – both through a technical grammatical angle and about how languages interact with another and with society. I have found out that I’ve been pronouncing specific sounds wrong in Czech and German my whole life. I have found out that it is in fact normal for multilingual children to use sounds and tongues interchangeably as I did. I’ve learnt to analyse my speech and the speech of others whilst speaking, gaining lots of fun, trivial knowledge from these experiences.

Knowing Czech and German in Australia isn’t all that useful. It mainly comes in handy through chaotic conversations in my household, chatting with my grandma over WhatsApp and eavesdropping on tourists’ conversations on the bus. Despite this, I am glad with how it connects me with my heritage, and the opportunities and potential for more connection to my culture in the future.

Happy International Language Day – whatever your language!

About Reeham Khandkar: I am a student at Macquarie University studying a Bachelor of Archaeology. I major in Ancient Greece, Rome and Late Antiquities, however, am interested in all things history and archaeology!

About Vrasidas Karalis: For the last 20 years, my main area of research has been in Modern Greek, Byzantine, Cultural Studies and more recently New Testament Studies. I have also worked in translation, especially of the Australian Nobel Laureate Patrick White and translated three of his major novels into Greek (Voss, The Vivisector, A Cheery Soul).

About Lisa Gronich: I’m currently in my second year of a Bachelor of Arts/Advanced Studies at the University of Sydney. My majors are Linguistics and Ancient History, with a minor in Philosophy


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au