Only speaking one language is a crime – at least that’s what I learnt growing up in Tasmania with a Dutch-Australian father who also happened to be an English and German teacher that dabbled in French and Russian. But it’s an offence I commit every day.
When I was six Dad tried to teach me Russian in the school holidays. I don’t remember much past Спасибо (thank you), which sounds vaguely like ‘spacebar’, and собака (dog), which of course has the sound ‘bark’ in it. Instead I begged to play outside with my friends and swim in the pool over the back fence with jack jumpers circling the rim.
At primary school every second year we had an hour a fortnight of Bahasa Indonesia. In high school Indonesian was compulsory in first year, as was learning to peel potatoes in home economics. In second year only eight students kept the language up, and we were punished socially for doing so. By third year there was no one left, so under Dad’s direction I switched to studying German through open learning and a couple of years later was the only student out of 2000 to graduate with German as a pre-tertiary subject.
Still burnt from my lonely, language-learning experience, I didn’t carry on with German at university, but before I travelled to Europe in 2008, I swotted up from my old textbooks. I gathered enough to hold short conversations at markets, or pleasantries with couch surfing hosts and even buy train tickets, although people in the bigger cities would quickly switch into English. “You speak like a child,” they said referring my lack of attention to die, der or das because I had long since forgotten the rules if I’d ever known them. Once when I was at a music festival on the German-Dutch border, I deliberately stood near the exit so I could make small talk to the people leaving. A woman said to, “You can speak English to me you know,” as if I had insulted her intelligence. I wanted to practice my German.
In the Netherlands I was complemented on my Dutch accent, but sadly it did not translate into my ability to communicate or understand Dutch. One night I took the last train from Amsterdam to Hoogeveen, but I missed the voice-over directions that the carriage was about to split. I found out later I was on the wrong part of the train. That night I ended up in Friesland, at the end of the line, and had to sleep on the hard metal benches until the first train left in the morning. Having grown up with my extended Dutch family meaning so much to me and being ever-present – the accents and stories and the blue and white trinkets they kept around the house, the jokes and sense of humour – this night in Leeuwarden was a devastating failure of my language capacity to live up to who I thought I was – mostly Australian but a bit Dutch too.
In contrast, when I visited Canada in 2014, I was thrown by all the Australian accents in the ski town of Banff, and the names of small cities near my own hometown that appeared on the badges of the backpackers running the ski-lifts. With two other Tasmanians we drove from Calgary to Montreal in the space of a week. Because it was April, and therefore springtime, we put summer tyres on the car but for days and days it was the most white, wintery vista I have ever seen – snow and frozen lakes – another language I was unfamiliar with. In Montreal we drove past terraces with their wrought iron balconies and commented on how Parisian it all looked. Even so, I was surprised when the locals spoke French first and English second, and even my friend who had done a month long language course in Provence was unwilling to try out her wares in this new jurisdiction. No matter, the man at the supermarket would quickly replace “un sac?” with “a bag?” and I would be left unsure as to whether I should respond with “merci” or “thank you” and would often use both.
Now I am back in Hobart, familiar territory – an English-speaking island, in an English speaking country. From here I can safely download Duolingo on my phone, which I have programmed in French for the time being. Once a month I visit my friend Rachel Tribout and we play ‘Guess Who en français.’ I nearly always guess the wrong character, but I am getting better. Still, guilty as charged I am far more comfortable explaining concepts to her in English and deep down I am aware of the power I am afforded not as a monolingual but as an English speaker, for the time being anyway.
In Australia having more than one language is a sign of indulgence. It is a skill that sets you apart and ahead, and sadly was one I chose not to pursue in a more dedicated fashion when I was younger. It also can’t be understated the power that English has in Australia over and above all other languages. This and a lack of dedicated foreign language teaching in public schools draws away the incentive and the resources for students to be able to gather up other languages unless they are spoken fluently at home. That and the fact that as English speakers when we do travel it is assumed we can get by with slowing down the pace of our English or with the generosity of people all over the world who have learnt English as a second, third, fourth, fifth language. I think about this sometimes in relation to the tourists who visit Hobart to see MONA and our precious wilderness areas. How would they be treated here if they simply chose to continue speaking Mandarin, Japanese or German, only they spoke slightly louder and of course more slowly to make themselves understood? I think the locals would take offence.
 Tasmania is the island state of Australia between Melbourne and Antarctica.
 A Jack Jumper is an Australian ant with a nasty sting that many people are allergic to.
 This was in contrast to the United States and other Canadian Provinces, and I realise is a bit like saying Tasmania looks like England, which it does in the context of Australia and does not in the context of the United Kingdom.
 Rachel, otherwise known as Captain Blueberry is a French-Australian illustrator.
 Hobart is the capital city of Tasmania, and MONA is a Museum of Old and New Art of world renown.