An Individual Reflects
Rosalind Moran, Division 3, College senior #ws17e-s1d3

Difference and sameness are subjective terms providing more information about perceived norms than about the object or person they’re describing. With this in mind, highlighting what I do differently from everyone else is problematic, for my difference within one group may be a point in common with another. Moreover, any comparison between me and others based in the belief I have some unique trait, whether positive or otherwise, feels egotistical. In a world where even hipsters, supposed gatekeepers of self-invention and originality, are accused of being derivative, can any of us be said to blaze truly individualistic trails?

Nevertheless, I possess one characteristic often deemed unusual: I am a polyglot with a weakness for moving overseas and forgetting to tell anyone. That my language abilities and global movements are frequently remarked upon, however, says a considerable amount about who is making the comments and about perceptions of culture in my country.

Polyglottery, a delightful word in itself, signifies knowledge or use of several languages; ‘poly’ means ‘many’ and ‘glot’ means ‘tongue’, or ‘language’. A polyglot is therefore somebody who speaks multiple tongues. It’s worth remarking the word is rarely attributed to people living within the Anglosphere.

In many parts of the world, multilingualism is commonplace. It’s not a special skill or an individualising trait imbued with cultural capital, but rather a tool of daily necessity. Inhabitants of southern India, for example, often speak at least five languages, and Europeans typically acquire skills in several owing to their continent’s smörgåsbord of linguistic and cultural diversity.

In my home country of Australia, however, the situation is significantly different. While Australia once possessed a myriad of Indigenous languages – the estimation sits at 250 languages and 600 dialects – the nation’s linguistic landscape was irreversibly changed following British colonisation beginning in the late 1700s. Words from the Anguthimri tongue no longer whisper through the scrublands of the Cape York Peninsula; the voices of the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land on which my birth city of Canberra is built, are infinitely fewer than they once were. Indeed, whereas Australia once possessed pockets of polyglottery where different Indigenous peoples, languages, and cultures interacted, it is now one of the world’s most monolingual nations. We may be multicultural, our population being a patchwork of immigrant heritage, but our society and institutions exist almost exclusively in English.

I’ve long lamented living on an island: Australia is vast and relatively underpopulated, creating a sense of isolation and even insularity when considering the nation is ringed by water. We have to travel far to experience life in a culture or country beyond our own. Naturally, there are pockets of linguistic and cultural diversity within Australian communities, yet these are typically tight-knit and perceived by the broader population as sitting on society’s fringes; while not necessarily viewed negatively, their differences make them ‘other’. I find this regrettable. For a nation which so prides itself on being multicultural, we can be quick to cling to our outdated mythology of strapping blonde men riding stockhorses through the bush. In attempting to create a common identity for our island nation, we homogenise its stories.

Ever since spending my childhood in France, I have been keenly interested in learning about experiences, stories, and worlds beyond my own. Bilingualism has always been my norm and this trait has helped me feel at home far beyond the Anglosphere – while having allegiances to multiple places can entail tangled emotions and cross-culture ties, I am grateful to these for allowing me a broadened, if diluted, sense of belonging. I have consequently developed a passion for language-learning and ejecting myself from my comfort zone whenever the opportunity arises. In short: I have become the sort of person who addresses the prospect of relocation with the answer of “yes!” and the rationalisation of “why not?”.

This makes me unusual among my peers, including those possessing the opportunity and resources to work or study abroad. Leaping out of one’s comfort zone with eager anticipation of being challenged is not everybody’s cup of bubble tea. In this regard, I am certainly an anomaly; “couldn’t you just visit Tasmania?” is one friend’s joking refrain.

Yet I’ve come to see the truth in these words, even though they are spoken in jest. One doesn’t have to leave one’s country in order to encounter something extraordinary. Indeed, sometimes the trick is merely to open one’s eyes and then open them again, the filmy lens of familiarity sliding back under thin eyelids. Take Australia, for example: its population may be relatively small, but many of us are separated by thousands of kilometres of desert and have developed unique ways of speaking, behaving, and simply being. I’ve lived in Beijing and yet I’ve never travelled further north in Australia than Brisbane – how bizarre! Going abroad and learning about other languages and cultures can be enriching for those fortunate enough to possess the opportunity; however, thinking unfamiliar cultures or even languages exist primarily beyond the borders of one’s home country is to play into a homogenising mentality centred around the nation’s dominant group.

A country may appear monolingual in institution or unvaried in popular culture, but this does not mean it is less diverse than an unfamiliar – and consequently more exoticised – destination abroad. I’ve sought the chance to work and study in countries beyond the Anglosphere: I’ve lived as an au pair in Italy, a human coat rack in Sweden, and a very tall person in Taiwan, among other places. My polyglottery is a happy tangle of languages at various levels, stretching out their etymological roots like a curious inky octopus – I’ve dabbled in eight languages and speak six competently. Yet my difference in this sense is only a difference if we view cultures and languages as beginning and ending at national borders. There are many people within Australia who engage with diverse tongues and tales.

I’m conscious that my supposed point of difference from others is deemed noteworthy more because of its contrast with people’s expectations of me, than because I have done anything truly remarkable. People don’t expect Australians to be multilingual and I am consequently lauded for abilities which are commonplace in other parts of the world. As for my tendency to uproot myself and live abroad while I’m still young and relatively free of commitments, this is a luxury, even if I am responsible for funding my own ambitions.

Recognising how dependent my differences are on others’ perceptions and values has made me question why we even place such emphasis on difference and the self in the first place. Naturally, highlighting what renders someone unusual within a group can make identifying them easier. The act of seeing and describing someone by their differences, however, can also be to ascribe that person with the character others see in them or expect them to embody – with time, an individual will likely even assume these perceived differences into their sense of identity. With this in mind, I am highly conscious of how my own identity and sense of self are inextricably linked to the views projected onto me. Who I am and who I believe I am are at least as influenced by others’ interpretations as they are by my intrinsic characteristics.

As a result, though I continue to take quiet pride in my abilities, I am careful not to become too attached to any differences others perceive as setting me apart. Few of these attributes are fixed and many only exist conceptually when contrasted with those of somebody else. Indeed, were we all nomadic polyglots, no-one would even consider describing me in such a way.

Through the very fact each person sees the world through a single pair of eyes, we are inherently primed to place emphasis on the self. Perhaps the emphasis we should be nurturing, however, is one focused less on individuals’ differences and whether they are in or out of a group, and more on people’s capacity to live together and find points in common. Taking pride in the self and developing it is important – but so is taking pride in the ‘us’; in being part of a unit. The beauty of the self is that it can be moulded, through development or even just through the eyes of others, to fit any number of groups. There is room for it to achieve independently but no need for it to stand alone.

It is unlikely any of us are as unique as we believe, whether we be polyglots with ink-stained fingers, buzzing with words; classic monolingual residents of the Anglosphere, who also possess complex stories to tell; or even a literal inky octopus, tentacles stretching out in a language of its own. Yet this need not mean any self is less important or valuable for not being wholly unique. We live in a world with over seven billion people: isn’t it wonderful to reflect on all the points we have in common?
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