From Polyglot to Polycultural: A Next Step in Raising Children
by Johan Galtung
Abstract. In the present world we celebrate being poly-glot, at home in several languages, at least passively in the sense of understanding and reading, if not also speaking and writing. We also celebrate being poly-local, at home in several settings, even when surrounded by the unusual, the quaint and exotic. We are also poly-vores, enjoying the foods, the libations of other cultures. All three are ways of being polycultural, practiced even in the most intimate of relations, polycultural marriages. But how about being poly-religious–are we ready for that step?
Let me start with two stories, from everyday life, even from my own life: one as a husband in a multi-cultural, Norwegian-Japanese, Eurasian marriage raising our two children; and one as a resident in a spot on earth that has realized a very high level of multi-culturalism: Hawai’i, in the center of the Pacific.
The first story starts with our son, approaching 3 years of age, screaming: “Don’t talk English to me! Talk Norwegian!” I had said something in Norwegian, and then repeated it in English, thinking that he should have the message in two languages. But I learnt a lesson. He had no concept of “Norwegian” and “English” as such; to him they were “Father’s language” and “Mother’s language” (Japanese requires more of a setting to be communicated effectively to children). Two languages no problem, but Father talks Father’s language, Mother Mother’s. Some order, please.
As we traveled around the world for various tasks: they picked up French, German, Spanish, whatever, easily. But the rule was that the language came through a “significant other”. A deep bond, a friend, a beloved teacher. The language was part of that person. Learning becomes a question of tuning in to the right person for the right language, till you master the tongue and can converse freely with anybody. Some classes used the “gouvernante” (maid, au pair) for that purpose, others the street.
Out of this came a polyglot son who at the age of 22 could conduct negotiations for an important NGO in five languages. He has some Italian on the side, but more rudimentary, being the outcome of a summer school rather than early-age bonding. And a daughter, who in addition went to Japan to pick up Japanese in a “natural” setting provided by a summer school rather than via early-age significant others. But summer schools are filled with joy and affection; maybe they learn mainly from other students?
What language did the two talk with each other? They took the color of the environment, like chameleons: they talked French in France, German in Germany, and so on; making family breakfast conversations a little confusing for friends who stopped by. They needed the polishing only schools and hard work can offer. But the groundwork was laid, as described. Some general theses:
- Children and adolescents have a very high capacity for learning, even mastering languages, with no clear upper limit;
- Languages flow along the bonding, making learning from significant others easier than school learning, except when there is bonding to the teacher or to class-mates of that language
- Each significant other should talk the same language to the child: unity of person, unity of language, no ambiguity
- Do no worry too much about mistakes, repeat sentences slowly and correctly, without too much focus on what was wrong
- Give the child the chance to come back to significant others for refresher courses; such roots are deep.
To be multi-glot or poly-glot is not only possible; it is even simple in a world where nations increasingly inter-marry and live around each other. And there are always significant others.
The second experience is from Hawai’i, a place with an extraordinary cultural diversity and symbiosis; all at the expense of the Hawaiians. There were 800,000 when the white man came (1778), down to 8,000 200 years later, after their land had been taken away, the diseases they got from the white man had been defined as “Acts of God”, and English and Christianity had been imposed upon them. But the last twenty years have witnessed an upsurge in Hawaiian consciousness, and also increased interest in genuine (as opposed to commercialized) “Hawaiian” culture.
So here is that island with Hawaiian culture, US continental culture (with the mix of first and second generation Europeans, and a high percentage of people of Portuguese descent), Pacific peoples (particularly Samoans), and East Asians, particularly Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese, and Filipinos. The telephone book can serve as a guide to the most frequent family names in a high number of cultures.
Even if many no longer talk their languages of origin, they have preserved cultural competence to a considerable extent, for instance with regard to the rites of naming, marriage and burial. All kinds of culinary languages, cooking, are spoken in public restaurants as well as in private homes. And they communicate that “linguistic” competence, serving and eating polyculturally.
There is harmony in the sense that violence rarely, if at all, seems to be rooted in inter-nation sentiments. It would be hard not to find patterns of prejudice and discrimination in such a complex society. But one thing is certain: relative to other societies around the world the cases are few and far between. And the Hawaiian sovereignty movement is so far devoted to nonviolence.
Hawai’i was not designed that way. The take-over in 1893, and the annexation in 1898, were brutal acts of US imperialism, for the usual economic and military purposes. East Asians were brought in as indentured labor. At the top of it all were a handful of white, mainland US families. But as time passed on those laborers used trade unions, the Democratic Party, and education (including the University of Hawai’i) as their stepping stones; and soon found themselves in a comfortable majority. There may be something to the thesis that “on a small island we all have to learn to live together”. But if that is true it should also have been true for those first hundred years, and it definitely was not. A whole people was passing away, with structure and culture, for the eyes of the white conquerors; others were treated not much better than slaves. A better point is probably that Hawai’i is one of the few places on earth where no national group can claim to be the dominant group, numerically or in terms of cultural and/or economic power (militarily there is no doubt as to who runs the game). All are minorities.
But then there is another factor, partly as a cause, partly as a consequence: the way people treat each other on these islands (incidentally also the reason why my little multi-national family has lived so much of our lives there). We are not talking of “tolerance” which certainly is better than intolerance, but far from good enough, in spite of the UN choice of 1995 as the “Year of Tolerance”. Tolerance means “you may continue to exist, because I am so generous, even magnanimous, given that I could have unleashed a whole battery of prejudice, discrimination and violence upon you.” Passive co-existence.
Hawai’i is beyond that pattern with many people broadening their cultural competence. The general theses can be summarized:
- People at any age have a high capacity for learning and mastering the essence of other cultures if they want to do so;
- Culture flows along ties of vicinity and affinity, neighbors and friends, much better than through school learning;
- Each neighbor/friend should be reasonably mono-cultural for the purpose of communication, avoiding too much ambiguity;
- Do not worry too much about mistakes, rather, repeat the action correctly without too much focus on what was wrong;
- Create the chance to come back to that neighbor/friend once in a while for a refresher course.
Basic codes are transmitted and compared to homologous elements in other cultures: we pray with folded hands to the Lord, they meditate in the position of the Lord Buddha. Like for languages the competence does not have to be active, in speech and writing; passive competence, understanding spoken and written language is also very useful. Absolutely basic is curiosity and respect, seeing the cultural dialogues as a source of mutual growth. A little competence is much better than no competence at all; and the perfect easily becomes the enemy of the good.
In Hawai’i you are supposed to know this minimum, pronounce proper names by and large correctly, have respect for the sacred times and places of Other, know how to eat and enjoy major dishes in other cultures, handle fork/knife and chopsticks correctly (and ketchup vs soy), know how to enter (or not enter) the rooms of Other, how to sit (or not to sit). Above all: be soft, do not push your own idiom too hard, be open to Other voices and ways.
So, my own experience is positive: it is entirely possible to be reasonably polyglot and poly-cultural at the individual level, and at the community level. It is immensely enriching; like living several parallel lives. Some immersion is needed in the significant other and the neighbor/friend. Schooling is a pure substitute for those, but certainly has a role to fill.
However, one point cannot be stressed enough: competence is not the same as knowledge. Competence is a skill. You can enter a dialogue with Other, like when for the first time you ask “what time is it?” in a foreign language, and you get the precise hour! Knowledge is to know that phrase; a good beginning, but not more.
Numerous implications can be drawn from such experiences, shared by millions, for the global citizenship of today and tomorrow. I would like to focus on ten, formulated as theses.
 Like parents, like children? We have tended to take it for granted that parents have a right to raise their children in their own national culture, including their own language and religion, and in the myths of their own nation; glories as well as traumas. Nobody will deny them their right to do so. But parents will in the future have no right to do only this, given that raising their children only into their own nation is totalitarian and even constitutes a major form of brainwashing. Of the parents of tomorrow we would expect not only that they do the task of handing over their own culture, but also that they open the windows and doors to other cultures. A foreign movie, a book about a religion not their own, inviting foreign tourists home, whatever form of exposure is better than none at all. To be locked up in one’s own idiom is simply not good enough.
 We increasingly live multi-culturally. With little contact with other nations and their cultures, uni-cultural education could be excused; chances being that most contact would be with people from the same culture, even from the same local community. Even teaching the national (usually meaning dominant) culture was going far, literally speaking. No longer so, today. Uni-cultural education is insufficient preparation for life in a multi-cultural reality, not only at the world level but also in the local social practices of an increasing number of people. In the field of language this has been recognized. The foreigner among us, as tourist, worker, refugee has to learn our culture. We do not have to learn his, but if we don’t we miss a fabulous opportunity. And one day we may be that tourist, worker, refugee.
This is what I so often experience in East Asia: a complete stranger comes up to me and says, usually in English: “may I talk some English with you?” He is testing out his book/class knowledge, and you can see the delight in his eyes when it works, when I look at my watch and give the answer to his question.
 Time has now come for religion and other aspects of cultures, not only languages. Just like parents, and schools, will have to give children and students knowledge of other languages than their own their task will also be to give them insight in other cultures than their own, including religions (cultures of the spirit) and ways of behaving (cultures of the body). The methods include media, meetings with people from other cultures in the local community, and travel to other parts of one’s own country and beyond. Just as we appreciate the polyglot person, we should appreciate the multi-cultural person.
 Just as for languages, what is demanded is not to believe in other cultures more than in one’s own. What is demanded is competence, respect, understanding; a sense of being familiar with, and at home in, other cultures. Just as we borrow words and expressions from other languages, we shall borrow from other cultures, and have always done so, in a spirit of exchange. A good example, and a very good beginning, is the culture of food, eating. We go out to eat other nations’ food, we learn dishes and mix them with our own, we become eclectic, multi-gusto. We may have norms against mixing cultures in the same meal, but not against mixing during the same week.
Switzerland has actually been doing so for generations. Even if the basic staples are unmistakably German, French, or Italian there are often elements of the other two. We can only gain from such practices, sharing the delights of human creativity.
 In this process of multi-culturation tolerance is not good enough. Curiosity should be encouraged, and above all respect: how wonderful that you are different from me, let’s learn from each other! That is precisely the message from the Hawaiian experience: don’t just tolerate, enjoy! Feel how you become another person when you talk another language, feel how sharing the meal of another culture makes you a part of that culture, that culture a part of you, we parts of each other.
The point is to leave the old mind-set that some cultures are better than others and enter a new mind-set of seeing all cultures as depositories of human experience. Human beings are similar so there is something to learn from all depositories. But the condition is contact, respect, curiosity, knowledge.
 Ideally, cultural exchange should be mutual; not only X learning about Y but also Y about X (thus, do French Swiss learn as much about German Switzerland as vice versa?). I always think of a story I heard the first day I was in Japan as a UNESCO consultant in 1968. St Francis Xavier, the great missionary, had come to Southern Japan, and the Japanese were enchanted with his stories of the life and death of Christ. They wanted to hear the stories a second day, a third day. But in the end St Francis felt time had come for the appropriate response, for the Japanese to be baptized. The Japanese, however, were of the opinion that now time had come for the tables to be turned around: for the Japanese to tell their stories, and for the foreigners to listen.
Big cultural powers often see no need for major cultures to master minor cultures. While they find it entirely appropriate that others master their idioms, reciprocity is not called for. Succumbing to this rationale for own grandeur and laziness they deprive themselves of sources of own enrichment They could study a minor culture within their own lands, another major culture, or a foreign minor culture. The reward is obvious: not eternal life, but parallel lives, reincarnation in another culture – –
 In some years the uni-cultural person will be regarded like the mono-glot person today: human, but unfit for this world.
In ever-widening circles in the world to be mono-glot is like being illiterate, a condition to do something about. So the guess is that this attitude will generalize to culture. To be not only disrespectful but without any knowledge of the basics of other cultures will simply be regarded as “bad manners”, as something to be corrected, starting with knowledge of religions.
 Teaching other cultures, like other languages, can best be done by those who have the culture as their mother culture. The culture as seen by them, not by “our people”, who will tend to teach foreign cultures like foreign languages, with an accent. This is basic in the field of religion. Nobody except the true believers will demand, or even hope for, a convert when somebody studies another religion. But what can be demanded is the effort to understand that other religion as believers in that religion do themselves. This is not a question of what is good or what is bad, and everybody is entitled to make comparisons; indeed, that is one of the many purposes of multi-culturalism. The problem is how to make sure that one has really understood; and the guideline suggested here is to start by understanding the way they themselves understand; and then build your own understanding
 The best way to learn foreign languages is by verbal dialogue=conversation; the best way to learn foreign cultures is to engage in action dialogue. As mentioned several times: through conversation theoretical knowledge becomes practical skills, tested at every turn of the dialogue. The same applies to culture in a general sense. “When in a Buddhist temple do as the Buddhists do”; having done that some times Buddhism creeps into the mind and the body, supplementing the knowledge derived from reading and conversation. “Learning by doing” is the general rule, as applicable to culture as to anything else. And this is where museums can be dangerous: they encourage an observer, peeping-Tom attitude to other cultures. From there a path may lead via participant observer to participant. But food should preferably be enjoyed, not be preserved in a glass montre.
 The goal is not one single, but softer cultures, for world peace. So far the discourse chosen here has been very neutral: all cultures are equally good, all cultures have something to offer, all cultures give us food for thought (and thoughts about food), all cultures can be a source of enrichment, with dialogues for mutual enrichment.
This may hold for cultures as a whole. But not all aspects of all cultures are worth learning. Rationalizations of violence, repression and exploitation are also parts of cultures. Maybe those who dwell in these cultures have become so used to these aspects that they no longer sense them? And, maybe the foreigner with a fresh look may have an important task in asking questions unasked in and by the culture itself? Do you really mean that, the outsider may ask of the more violent parts of the Torah, the New Testament, the Qur’an? And the believer may be hard pressed for an answer that convinces himself, leave alone the outsider.
Underlying this is an attitude to culture very different from the classical student of culture, be that as a cultural anthropologist, a theologian, an historian (of ideas), a philosopher: culture as something static to know and understand up till today, not as something dynamic that can be shaped, also by studying and mastering it. Again, the key word is dialogue, the “dialogue des civilizations“, not as something carried out for mutual information, or once and for all by some key spokes-persons, but everybody on earth to participate shaping cultures fit for active co-existence. Asking not only what cultures do we have, but what cultures do we want, adequate for environment, for development and peace. In a multi-cultural global culture.
In conclusion, my own little poly-religious peace formula:
Learning from Hinduism, remember: Conflict the Destroyer and Conflict the Creator; conflict as a source of violence and as a source of development. The conflict worker has the third role as Preserver, avoiding violence, promoting development.
Learning from Buddhism, remember: codependent origination, everything grows together in mutual causation. Conflicts have no beginning and no end, we all share responsibility for what we did and failed to do; no single actor (like statesmen) carry all the responsibility (monopoly), no single actor all the guilt.
Learning from Christianity, remember: the responsibility for conflict transformation lies with individuals, like me, here-now, and individual decisions to promote peace rather than violence.
Learning from Daoism, remember: everything is yin and yang, good and bad, the action chosen may have negative consequences and the action not chosen may have positive consequences; hence the need for reversibility, only doing what can be undone.
Learning from Islam, remember: the strength deriving from submission, together, to a common goal, including the concrete responsibility for the well-being of all.
Learning from Judaism, remember: the truth lies not in a verbal formula but in the dialogue to arrive at the formula, and that dialogue has no beginning and no end.
Learning from all of them, but particularly from the ahimsa of Buddhism and Hinduism: the sacredness of life.
Following the old adage, je prends mon bien ou je le trouve, the whole treasure of human wisdom opens up. In the Orient they have done this for ages. We have only our monotheisms to lose.