I was on a train recently and found myself surrounded by groups of people speaking languages I didn’t understand. There was a time when I would have felt uncomfortable about this, but I was pleasantly surprised to find myself grinning and feeling joyful. I couldn’t understand the words people were saying but I could grasp the tone. For some there was excitement, for others laughter, and yet for others the conversations were more intense.
Listening to people speak in different languages reminded me that the world is made up of many different stories, different life experiences, and different ways of seeing, and I felt lucky to live in a country where those stories, experiences and perspectives were finding expression. I find it amazing to think that those different languages represent centuries and even millenia of accumulated wisdom, culture, and innovative ways of engaging life. Surely if we take the time to observe, listen and appreciate each other this diversity will enrich us, help us see the world in fresh ways and discover new experiences.
Surveys show that many Australians feel that the ability to speak English is one of the most important things that define us as Australian. I agree. One of the tremendous things about our society is that we are able to communicate with each other and a common language makes this much easier. I have no idea what the English capacities of the people on that train were, but I suspect that most would have been English proficient. Yet as I sat surrounded by their chatter I couldn’t help but inwardly celebrate that Australia is not a nation of bland cultural uniformity but a myriad of subcultures that intersect and enlarge us.