Saturday 21 January 2012

Multiculturalism, and other big words

Words which come prefixed with “multi-” give the impression that “multi-” refers to ‘many, different, varied’, and therefore that the same words can be used with some contrasting prefix referring to ‘one, same, uniform’. In some cases, multi-words appear to make some sense, examples being multimedia or multinational. In other cases, I wonder: what does a word like multitasking contrast with, and what might contrasting concepts refer to?

Photo: MCF

Another such word which provides me with much food for thought is “multicultural”. Your culture can be defined as anything that you are and do which is not determined by your genetic patrimony. That is, what you are and what you do because you’ve been nurtured to be so and do so. Cultural behaviours are localised in time and space, which is why we find phrases like Victorian culture or Asian culture. But big words like Victorian and Asian refer to analytical concepts, whose vagueness ends up turning them into stereotypes. As we know, analyses, including cultural analyses, are made by the big shots of their time – often for other big shots of all time. Real-life culture is small in both time and space, because the groups which socialise us into it are also small. We eventually develop into culturally local individuals.

Our languages are naturally part of our cultural patrimony, because they are there to serve socialisation into the practices, physical as well as intellectual, which characterise the people in our environments. The locality of cultural behaviours is what explains that languages associate with neither countries nor cultures, one to one, and that attempting to attribute cultural portraits to nationalities says more about the portrayer than about the culture or the nationality. More than one language is used in virtually all countries, and the same language is used to express widely different cultures. The same locality also explains language variation, whether geographical (what linguists call dialects) or social (sociolects). There are northern, and southern, and regional, and urban, and so on varieties of the same language; and we don’t speak in the same way to our childhood’s best friend and to the head-hunter who just found out about our ideal profile for the latest starvation-wages job.

This means that we all use our languages, one or more, in many, different, varied ways, in order to satisfy many, different, varied cultural needs, and this is why I find it quite baffling that only part of humankind somehow got to be labelled as “culturally and linguistically diverse”, or as users of “heritage languages”. Aren’t we all? The belief that mystifying labels such as these refer to relevant facts, and the related effort to make sense of what doesn’t make sense takes time, and human, administrative and financial resources. Not to mention, of course, the expectations about linguistic and cultural proficiency which we go on pasting on those people whom we’ve got used to label in this way. I develop this argument in a book chapter, Sociolinguistic and cultural considerations when working with multilingual children, included in a collection dedicated to assessment of speech disorders in multilingual children.

There’s more to any individual than the singularity of the pronoun “I”. Being “multicultural” doesn’t mean being a patchwork of cultural bits and pieces which “belong” to other people, and which besides stand in conflict with one another. It means behaving according to the cultural conventions which make sense around us. The next post explains how the conflicts which presumedly afflict multilinguals and multiculturals arise from the implications of the prefix “multi-”.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Split identities, and other ugly words. Saturday 28th January 2012.

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