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Apart whilst still a part

By Larry Stillman - posted Monday, 13 February 2012

People often ask me if I was born in Australia.

This is strange, because I was born here and I have spent most of my life in this country. But culturally, I've never been part of Anglo-Australia though I've been though its formative public institutions-schools and universities. I'm part of minority culture Australia. My family comes from pre-Nazi Poland the old Jewish community of Turkish Palestine, many of whom came here around 1910.

A desire to get away in the 1970s from a double-dose of parochialism (Australia in general, and that of a minority community), is what first drove me abroad, to study in Jerusalem, but then by chance, I ended up spending many years in the US. But now I live back here with one 'real' American (my wife) and a dual-national son. However, we talk about things 'back home'.


My big dose of being away happened before the internet, and in those days, the only recent news about Australia was got via aerogrammes, the BBC World Service, the crackly ABC shortwave service, and sometimes, dated newspaper clippings, and of course, word of mouth. Phone calls were for family matters not politics. So I had to construct a kind of identity-at-a-distance for yourself. For example, I would spin tales of lemon-sucking spiders, in an exaggerated Strine-accent, for gullible Americans who believed it. I used to run around the hills of Jerusalem in a Carlton footy jumper--and one day Bob Hawke yelled out of a limo at me. I read Martin Boyd's novels about a family who lived between Anglo Australia and the UK and identified with their alienated characters.

Being away for so long all those years ago has meant that a lot of connections that are built up by people in their younger years (and Melbourne is all about who you know) never existed for me, so in many ways I am an immigrant back to Australia and remain so 20 years after coming back. I suppose I now have a preference for being an outsider, the observer, with an interest other languages, other cultures, other politics. In Italy, where I organize a conference every year, the Americans who come in particular ask me if I live in Italy (what flattery).

But I also met Australians who had settled elsewhere for the long-term, sometimes with regret, sometimes preferring not to discuss the matter. Opportunity knocks, and in the pre-electronic era, it was much harder to move around and take chances, particularly if there were kids or kids on the way.

Now we are in the electronic era? Well, I have been back in Australia for over 20 years now, but I go away every year to Europe or South Africa, and contact with colleagues abroad is instantaneous.

But despite my enjoyment of Australia's lifestyle, if I don't get out of the country I feel trapped from connection with other cultural or intellectual centres. There is nothing quite like personal connection. Australia can't offer everything, and that is why it is important to offer every opportunity for people to study or work abroad in the national interest throughout the 30 or 40 years they will spend in the workforce, though of course, the cultural and social benefits are just as valuable. There is no reason in this day and age (assuming that jet travel continues in particular), that we can't think of visiting somewhere in Europe or Asia in the same way as a Swede might think of going to Italy: not just for the sunshine (no need for us), but for all the benefits that such places offer in term of culture or learning. Thus Australia, more effectively networked through its citizens in a globalized world is nothing but improved: we blend into different cultural situations, and more easily build relationships that strengthen whatever we do.

However, there is also that difficult issue of languages and Australia's apparent incapacity to act multilingually. While more and more people speak or at least understand Globish (global English), or read English on the internet, there is nothing quite like fluency in one or more languages to have the inside edge. I like to think I am badly fluent in two other languages, and can get out phrases in others, but even at that messy level, people respond and interact with you quite differently than being the monolingual outsider.


How should we develop such linguistic and intercultural skills? I actually think that there is a misdirected approach to language learning in Australia. Due to hegemonic pressures, unless you are born with language talent, or come from a minority culture with a marketable language and skills, you will pretty much remain monolingual in a predominantly monolingual society. To broaden the language skills pool, I have the view that school-based language training is probably misdirected for the special needs that Australia has.

The best solution is to encourage, subsidize, or provide tax-breaks to Australians of a university or working age (even older adults like myself) to undertake intensive language study, and learn the peculiarities of the language they have chosen in vivo: in a lab, in a business, in an international development project. On this point, the decision to cut subsidies for accredited foreign language study at places like the Council for Adult Education in Melbourne has been a backwards step by government.

Many people probably don't realize their interest in, or language potential, until they have taken their first trip overseas, after than school education (and only exposure to language learning is over). Others may only realize later in their careers that second-language skills would be very useful. And it's possible to get fluency in more than one language. While I have Hebrew and a number of very dead ancient languages , I've been studying Italian part-time now for about 6 years with a diverse group (including a police officer, a teacher, a jeweler, a banker, another academic), and I'm sure that the younger members of the group will go abroad for long haul work of one sort or other. In my professional life, because Monash University has a centre in Italy near Florence, having Italian has been invaluable and opened up professional relationships.

In fact, the large Australian diaspora deserves special parliamentary representation such is their contribution, even at a distance, to the country. In Italy, for example, there are MPs who represent different parts of the world, and Australia deserves at least Northern and Southern hemisphere MPs to assist with issues such as taxation, pensions, education, hatches, matches and dispatches, and a host of other bureaucratic niggles that occur when you are living abroad but wish to maintain connections. Expats may have even have better insights into many policy issues than politicians or desk-bound bureaucrats and their international perspective should be valued. There are some logistical problems, but again, new technology can take care of many distance issues so people are not cut off as they were only a few decades ago.

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About the Author

Larry Stillman lived abroad from 1976-1989 and travels regularly for his work at Monash. He has degrees from the University of Melbourne, Hebrew University, and Harvard, as well as a PhD from Monash University. He works as a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of IT at Monash as well as with the Oxfam Australia-Monash University Partnership.

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