Browsing "Foreign Language"

Auck’ward: The Mother Tongue

This is my first attempt at writing about the multicultural society here, and it certainly won’t be the last. I’ll be learning the ways Maori and other Pacific cultures are embedded and interpreted in New Zealand for the rest of my life. I’m coming at this as someone who’s been a little more than casually interested for a long time, but who’s observing and experiencing the extent of indigenous culture on the broader New Zealand society for the first time.

Four public trash and recycling cans, red, blue, yellow, and red. At the top they're labeled in English; beneath that in Maori; and beneath that in Chinese.
Municipal trash and recycling bins, labeled in English, Maori, and Chinese.

New Zealand is a bilingual country, with all government publications and services bearing messages in both English and Maori languages. Kids learn Te Reo Maori (“the Maori language”) words, phrases, and songs from the day they enter school. Signs in libraries and community centers and public swimming pools are labeled in both languages. And many places retain their original Maori names.

A busy advertisement for a community daycare offering full Maori immersion. The ad incorporates a number of Maori phrases, words, and cultural symbols like carved green Tiki heads.
Advertisement for a daycare center offering full Maori immersion.

The integration is more than official. Maori words crop up in Kiwi conversations all the time. Folks inquire about your family with “How’s the whanau?” Stores with calligraphied photo frames and plaques have “arohanui,” or “much love,” alongside the “love makes a family”-type stuff.

An artwork with panels in various colors and patterns, such as a dove, two white-skinned hands clasping, flowers, and the word "Arohanui."
Artwork featuring the Maori expression “arohanui,” or “much love.”

As someone who’s dedicated a lot of years to reading, writing, and speaking languages beyond English, I really love seeing Maori in print everywhere. I’m watching a bunch of shows on the Maori-language TV channels, and I’m working hard to get my pronunciation and vocabulary right. It’s the one part of indigenous culture where I have more clarity about what’s appropriative and what’s not.

Most importantly, though, is the fact that Maori’s omnipresence means that there’s no mistaking that indigenous people, their language, and their culture are alive and well, now and into the future. It’s a stark contrast with Native American people and cultures in America, where place names are obscured or unmoored from their origins, and Native people are rarely portrayed in the present day by mainstream media.

The differing paths of colonization have everything to do with this contrast. But New Zealand offers a vision for how language can be used to stitch together the past and present and offer a way forward as a bilingual and bicultural society.

Rolling to surmount the language barrier

This story was originally published in the RPGirl zine in 2010, a fine publication edited by Emily Care Boss and containing the writings of quite a few other fascinating women in the gaming community. Enjoy!

I hadn’t been in France long when I met my first foreign gamer. And it didn’t just come up casually in café conversation—I was introduced by another student who knew I’d met my then-boyfriend (now Darling Husband) in an online RPG, and grasped that the concept was related to what this student had been describing to her at a party. I agreed to meet him, knowing that, at the very least, I’d know another geek.

But she was right. Nicolas was a real live French gamer guy. I thrilled him in our first meeting by having Secret Knowledge. We were talking about TV shows, movies and books we liked, and he asked if I watched “Aux Frontières du Réel,” or “On the Frontiers of Reality.” I said I didn’t know it, was it French? “Non, non,” he insisted, and reached for a book. The cover explained it all—behind the French title was a distressed, typewriter-style X. “Oh,” I explained in French, “In America it’s called ‘The X-Files.’” “That explains everything!” he exclaimed. “I always wondered why that X was there!”

Still, scheduling kept us from getting a game together for months, though Nicolas and I would chat when we bumped into each other. Mostly this consisted of him asking me if I knew about a game that had just come out in France, and me apologetically explaining that it had come out four years earlier in the U.S. When I finally met the group, it was to play a one-shot of something I’d never played: Time Lord.

I’d only seen Doctor Who played by Tom Baker on PBS, when I was about five years old. What I’d seen, I didn’t really remember, except, of course, the scarf, and several aliens that looked like upended rubbish bins on wheels. I’ve become a rabid fan since the 2005 reboot, and there’s no doubt I would’ve enjoyed the game more, knowing what I know now.

That said, I enjoyed myself quite a lot. It took several hours to get up to full speed on the French, but that says more about the universality of gamer speed- and geek-speak than it does about my French; I’d already taken on a French customs officer over the phone and won, which I consider the height of my skills. It turns out it’s also universal to play nonstop into the wee hours of the morning.

As we moved into the climax of events around 3.00 a.m., I found myself caught up in the action. We were likely to get cooked by the savage inhabitants of the place where our TARDIS ditched if someone didn’t quickly impress the hell out of them. I chose the much-maligned classic gambit: C3PO and the Ewoks.

“I’ll start speaking in tongues!” I asserted excitedly, preparing to let fly with a steady stream of fast English. I opened my mouth as Nicolas set the scene for the natives and…

Nothing. I could not conjure a single English word to save my life. Surely this was just a late-night misfire. I opened my mouth, tried again.


My English was gone. It had sunk deep in the weeds of my second language, lost in hours of linguistic and narrative immersion. I was stunned by how quickly my language—something I consider integral to my personality and cultural identity—had deserted me in the marathon of collaborative storytelling and group bonding. Two more false starts, and I finally managed a reasonable facsimile of what I’d been aiming for, enough to move the action along toward its conclusion.

At least I rolled well, thank goodness.