• Discussion Paper

    Importance of teaching our Language & Culture to our children in Australian Multicultural Society

    (The message delivered by Shubha Kumar to the audience at the Sinhala Language Teaching Programme Annual Workshop 2004, on invitation of Sinhalese Cultural Forum of The New South Wales Australia Inc.)

    Good Morning... Every One,

    I feel privileged to be asked by Mr. Mahinda Karunaratne to speak at the Sinhalese Cultural Forum and share my thoughts with you on the importance of teaching language and culture to our children in this multicultural society of Australia, we call home. My husband and myself came to Australia 30 years ago with our two very young sons. In those days we couldn’t find many Indians to speak our language with, the ingredients that we needed to cook our Indian style food or any Indian cultural activities to go to or even buy cassettes or records of Indian music that we could listen to and enjoy. It is not only us who missed our Indian “things” but also our children had very little or no exposure to our Indian language and culture when they were growing up. So as parents, it was up to us to keep the candle of Indian-ness alight so that they could have a good understanding of their heritage and feel proud of it in this foreign environment.

    Our children outside home in schools, amongst their friends and peers, face different values and environment and feel challenged. It is in those times if they have a good understanding of their own ethnic background, their native language, culture and values, they will be able to weather these challenges not only with confidence and pride, but also they would make others appreciate their values, beliefs and their ethnic diversity.

    It is through language that we develop our thoughts, shape our experiences, explore our customs, structure our community, articulate our values and give expression to our hopes and ideas. Knowing the native language presents one with a strong self-identity, a culture with which to identify and belong to and find contentment. Culture is the way of life of a group of people, their traditions, shared attitudes, values, goals, language, food, their customs, art, literature, religion and philosophy etc. It is the means by which different groups within the society define and maintain their identities.

    This is the age of networking and connecting. More and more people are traveling and migrating to countries of their choices. Australia is a multicultural society of many ethnic communities and backgrounds. It is like a melting pot, a pot that has so many fragrances of so many pleasant flavors. In this land Australia that we now call our home, at times we tend to worry that our ethnic background may be a handicap and it is more important that our children learn the language of this land and the culture to compete successfully in their professional life and stay in front.

    I believe people like people who are proud of who they are, it does not matter what the nationality is. To forget one’s ethnic background is to cheat oneself. If I live my life thinking that in being Indian there is something bad or lacking, it would begin to show in my personality and I will loose confidence in myself which will bring a negative effect in my professional, personal and social life. I am an Indian and I am very proud to be one. When people make friends with me they become friend of more than me. I am the product of six thousand years of Indian-ness. I will not get the same respect if I denied my Indian heritage. Even though in Australian environment we would like to be Australians but essentially we remain Indians first. Our children are Australian by birth or they have come here at a very early age, so they become Australian first. What our children need is what we have, the Indian-ness or in your case Sri Lankan-ness.

    How do we do it ? We give them a place to hang on to, such as it could be an association, a school, a Sinhalese club, cultural shows or even a Sinhalese market and that is where they go to remember and refresh their Srilankan inheritance. Every person of ethnic background should have such places which give opportunity to generate the sense of belonging with their heritage. Be proud of who you are. Maintaining one’s culture ,values and traditions is beyond price.

    Learning language by internet or in isolation won’t be enough as it will not impart emotions which you can feel in the company of others. This way one can not sufficiently experience the music, the food, the fashion and the thinking. It is like if I learn Sinhaleses on internet or by tapes, I may learn the language but it will not touch my soul unless I hang out with you the Srilankan people and understand how you think, why you think like that, your food and your attitudes. I will not learn the traditions, the culture and the slang just by speaking few words of Sinhaleses or even fluent Sinhaleses, unless I spend time with you and make an effort to feel what you feel.

    When Britishers came to India they had their hang out places- clubs, schools, churches, sports etc. and they shared their culture freely with us. Once you have developed these places to hang on to, encourage your children and youth to make it an essential part of their life. They will grow up to be much better persons, full of confidence and self esteem.

    Also, this is such a rich culture why not make an effort to share it with other people of this land. It does not create any conflict but enriches the society. I give you an example, I took a position as Quality Control Chemist 30 years ago in a chemical firm. People used to make fun of some of our cultural things such as arranged marriage etc. When I explained to them on each account the significance of it and why we do it and the success of our way, they understood. Their comment was “Shubha, before you explained to us, we were saying what we have been taught and we did not know any other way”. Then they added further “… by talking to you we realize the values in your traditions. It is good that we met you and now understand your values better”. So it’s not only the image of Indian culture was enhanced, it enhanced my image in their eyes and my self esteem as well.

    Language strengthens a sense of identity. Without preservation of native language the links with the home, country and the inherited culture are bound to weaken. This can develop into a weakening of bonds with the family, with parents and even with siblings. Inherited values are the best anchor to guard us against alienation and against being swept away by the glitter of a materialistic society and thus boost our confidence.

    Immigrants are like saplings transplanted from one environment to the other. Borrow from both your worlds, past and present and use them both. Be proud of your heritage and hang on to your ethnic background; do not loose it by pretending to be somebody else and encourage your children and youth to feel the same. Be yourself and understand the importance of being you. Show people who you are by what you do. Keep a sense of humor. Pass on your native language and culture to your future generation. By being aware of our culture & heritage it is possible for our future generations to have the best of both worlds; retain benefits of our ancient civilization with superb spiritual and family values, not fall back but evolve in the new environment to advance further. Passing on the culture and traditions to the younger generation will be a great gift from us to them, in this shrinking world.

    My Vision: I would like to share my vision with you , how I think the tomorrow will pan out. Australia is a great place to live. Our community has a lot to offer to Australia and to Australians. Majority of us are very happy with the choice to make Australia home. We have invested our children’s future in this country so it is in our interest that we add whatever value we can to make this place even better than what it is today. In Australia so many cultures coming together will greatly enrich the society and naturally new values will emerge. Intercultural marriages are already happening and there will be more interfaith and interaction which will create better understanding between diverse backgrounds. I believe that our younger ethnic generation will be defining a new set of values. Hopefully it will result in greater tolerance and harmony in this society.

    To sum up these are the few things that I have learnt from my mentors and my friends;

    • Be proud of who you are. People like people who are proud of their heritage.
    • Hang on to your ethnic origin. Don’t loose it by pretending to be somebody else.
    • Build your confidence. You can achieve your goal, whatever it may be.
    • Don’t dwell on your colour, whatever your colour. Start controlling life by controlling your own thinking first. To be liked by others, you have to like yourself first.
    • Borrow from both your worlds, past and present and use them both.
    • Find your national origin; find your own market, a place to return to, and enjoy, … enjoy.
    • Show others who you are by what you can do.
    • Hang on to your native language; if you are weak in it, learn it. It can work wonders for you in this shrinking world.
    • Never believe any one who says you can only go that far because you are Srilankan, Indian, Italian or whatever. Believe yourself instead.
    • Do every thing you can to help people get to know you and to understand you. Then they will love you back.

    …… Thank you all for giving me your valuable time and attention to listen to my views.

    Shubha Kumar (Former President of AHIA and UIA)