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College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

20 May 2020

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How language and culture go together

Diversity Day, officially known as "The World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development", is celebrated on 21 May. JCU student Maria Elena Rosa Ortega De Ohara shows that learning a new language can be one step closer to a better understanding of other cultures.

A desire to understand people from other cultures has motivated JCU student Maria Elena Rosa Ortega De Ohara to expand her repertoire of languages. Maria is originally from Honduras and speaks Spanish, English, Japanese and French. On a semester of study abroad, she put her French to the test and learned about the diverse culture of New Caledonia.

“The most important thing to me is how I feel about Australia’s neighbours,” Maria says. “About the closeness, about the importance of not only learning the language but communicating with them. It’s not just about learning French, it’s about learning about the people who speak French. That’s important.”

Maria Elena Rosa Ortega De Ohara with firends
New Caledonia University
Maria studied at the University of New Caledonia, which gave her an opportunity to perfect her French language skills.

Learning French in New Caledonia

Maria has focused her talents on learning about the people and culture of New Caledonia, a long, thin island 1600 kilometres east of the North Queensland coast. The appeal of this culture comes from its tribal origins that have been influenced by French colonisation.

The Kanak culture of the island is well and truly alive, and it was this culture, and how it has been affected by French colonisation, which Maria sought to experience.

“New Caledonia was colonised by France, so their language is French but the Kanak still live there,” she says. “They have different tribes, their culture is really alive still. It was something so different from where I’ve been.

“It’s about understanding the way they live, the way they behave, why they think like that.

“For example, in a community, you don’t have cousins and uncles — you have fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, because everyone feels like a whole family. That’s something I learned from my classmates but it’s something that I want to see with my own eyes by visiting a community. You kind of appreciate not only the people but if you communicate directly with them you make this connection much easier.”

“If you understand their culture directly, instead of just translating, you’re taking the direct route, not going around.”
JCU student Maria Elena Rosa Ortega De Ohara

Maria’s classes at the University of New Caledonia were a perfect platform for learning about a small demographic of New Caledonians: her fellow students.

“Most of my classmates were coming from different parts of New Caledonia, so by meeting them I came to learn a little bit more of how they are, how they behave, how they think,” she says.

Understanding local writers and their culture

“The most interesting for me were the books that I read from writers from Oceania. They were very interesting because it’s not just about what they are writing but the way they write is so different from English.”

JCU is well-positioned to allow students like Maria to experience different cultures, with exchange programs to Japan, Canada, France, England and many more.

“We all should take opportunities. It’s not that we don’t or we do, we should,” she says.

“New Caledonia was something very special for me. I wanted to perfect my French. I’d been studying French at university and I thought it was a very good opportunity to improve it.

“I was very interested in learning about the Kanak culture. We have been learning at university and it was the best opportunity for me.”

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