Modern Man

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Much-loved linguist and ABC broadcaster Roly Sussex, 70, tells Rosemary Desmond why 65 is just an arbitrary age for retirement and why every day brings new discoveries.

When Roland Sussex badly broke his arm at school it ended his dream of becoming a professional musician but started a lifetime love of language.

He is now Emeritus Professor of Applied Language Studies at Queensland University (UQ), speaks five languages, is a regular radio broadcaster with the ABC and was made a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2012.

When not immersed in academia, listening to classical music or working on his acreage property in Brisbane’s west, he cycles 100kms a week – and is not afraid to wear lycra.

Roly laments the demise of many uniquely Australian words which have given way to Americanisms. He has also long believed our country is part of Asia and needs to embrace its languages and culture. And, he reads stories and plays spelling games with his six-year-old grandson in Hobart via Skype.

What attracted you to the study of languages?

My dad was a professor of French and he also knew Latin, Greek and German and so languages were a part of our household.

I was born in Melbourne but we went to live in New Zealand where I was in a youth orchestra as a clarinettist. But while long-jumping at school, I had an absolutely terrible breakage of an arm … and that ruined a potential career as a musician.  So I have kept music as one of my favourite things to do – mainly listening rather than playing – and I took up languages.

I started learning Russian, French and Latin at age 12 and, at age 15, I started German as well. In 1968 I went to Prague to do a PhD in Slavic Linguistics. But in August (of that year), the Soviets reinvaded Czechoslovakia to reimpose their conservative version of Communism. I decided not to continue my studies there because my colleagues were a little uncomfortable about having Western colleagues around.

(After completing a PhD) I got a job teaching linguistics and Russian at the University of Reading near London.

And you married in 1971…

My future wife Bogna was Polish and my mother-in-law said: ‘If you want the daughter, you had better learn the language, son’. So I did that and Polish has become one of my best languages and was until she died from cancer two-and-a-half years ago.

So, how many languages do you speak?

I can speak five and with the help of a dictionary can read about another 15. It’s what I do for a living.

Where have you taught in Australia?

I came back to Australia to Monash University and I was the first Professor of Russian at the University of Melbourne at the age of 31.

But around 1987, I started getting worried that Mikhail Gorbachev was going to bring down the old Soviet Union and I might end up with insufficient students. Out of the blue, the University of Queensland rang and said ‘we’ve got a job here in applied linguistics, come and talk to us about it’. My wife and I had been up to Peregian Beach (Sunshine Coast) on holiday just before that and she said to me: ‘if there is a job in Queensland, we’re going’. So we went – and it’s been wonderful ever since.

That’s quite a life story…

Well, that’s just part of it. I retired in 2010 because my contract said on my 65th birthday I was ‘out’. But various people came rushing after me and said ‘come back, we’ve got things for you to do’.  I have two big projects at the university. One of these is ITaLI - the Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation - and we are building MOOCs, which are Massive Open Online Courses and in two years, we’ve just passed our 500,000th enrolment on courses we have produced and put online. The other project is called PainLang, which is about helping people communicate about pain.

How you actually communicate about your pain to your doctor, to your therapist, to your family and friends, is absolutely crucial to diagnosis and lifestyle, and it is enormously different across cultures. For example, my dad was Australian and he was brought up that expressing pain is not something a gentleman does. You should ‘crack hardy’ - to use an old phrase - you should be staunch and not show it, whereas in other cultures… particularly women in childbirth…are encouraged to be very vocal as it is supposed to be good for the foetus. The doctor has to understand the principals of pain talk in different cultures if he or she is going to understand what the patient is really going through.

Apart from that, I write for The Courier-Mail on language, I do radio with the ABC on Tuesdays and Thursdays with South Australia and Queensland and with lots of other bits of the ABC who ring up and want to do programs. I’m (Brisbane) president of the Alliance Française and I’m writing two books.

Are you concerned at the number of Americanisms creeping into English?

Indiscriminate Americanisation is probably not so great in that we may lose some things which are part of our idiom historically and part of our identity. Words like ‘bonza’ have gone, even ‘ace’ and ‘grouse’ which were words of approval when I was young. Now all of our ‘approval’ words like ‘great’ and ‘neat’ and ‘cool’ are American. Why can’t we have some Australian approval words? I have a data base of nearly 10,000 items of Americanisms which I’ve recorded in Australia. Some of them like ‘OK’, are very common indeed. OK is the most recognised word on the planet – and it’s American English.

When I was young, Australian English was ‘in for a dig’ and colloquial and when you went overseas, you tried to mask it. Nowadays our language has arrived, we are very comfortable in using it. The way we talk is now regarded with admiration, curiosity and sometimes amazement.

I’m also collecting diminutives – things like Robbo and Johnno, Bundy and Rocky, Freo and Rotto (for Rottnest Island). I’ve got a data base of around 6,000 of those and they are going to be online as a free dictionary for everybody worldwide to do research on Australian English. We abbreviate words and names more than anybody else in the English-speaking world. We don’t like titles and we don’t like formal names. We are very informal with each other and we expect to give and receive that same sort of informality.

You’ve said that many university students complain of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) because they are unused to hand writing. Is handwriting dying out?

We’ve spent nearly 6,000 years learning to write with pens and styluses and quills and now we write with keyboards, including mobile phones. I think maybe within 10 years, the physical act of picking up a pen and writing will be a bit unusual and it will probably become like Chinese writing - a form of calligraphy.

Another thing that intrigues me is that emails, SMS and Twitter have given us a generation of writers. Nowadays if you get on a school bus about 4pm, everybody is on their mobile phone sending themselves messages and you need to know something about the way the language works in order to break the rules the way they do and so the written language has made an extraordinary comeback. The important thing is that people should know there is a difference between the sort of language you would read in a formal written piece and in informal SMS language.

You mean like OMG…

Yes and ROFL which is Rolling On the Floor Laughing. I’m doing a Wooftie (short for Word for Today – a regular segment on ABC Radio) on FOMO, which is Fear of Missing Out.

FOMO has actually become a psychological condition where people are so pathologically bound to being online that they can’t afford to be off it.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Firstly, I’m a big connoisseur of classical music of all kinds.

Secondly, I’m a MAMIL…a Middle-aged Man In Lycra, except that at my age, I’m probably a GEMIL…which is a Geriatric Man In Lycra. But I do 100kms a week on the bike, mountain bike and road bike. This is thanks to my daughter who said about nine years ago: ‘Dad, before your body rusts let’s do something to help you.’ I used to run and to play squash but my knees didn’t like that sudden change of direction. I do a lot of cycling in groups with friends and to some extent socially. I’ve done Cairns to Karumba (southern Gulf of Carpentaria) a number of times, which is 800kms in seven days and is a charity ride. It’s a lovely way to meet different sorts of people who like getting around on two wheels. I live on acreage in Anstead (in Brisbane’s west) where my daughter has a horse. I do a lot of heavy gardening associated with that.

I’m doing a great deal of research at the moment….and I’m editing a book on a series of papers from a conference at the Macau Polytechnic Institute on Intercultural Communication and English in Asia.

We come from Australia and when we hear English, we think it’s exactly the same as we are used to and the answer is no, it is not at all. You need to be bilingual and bicultural in English. In other words English is not a single language any more, it is many languages and it is the engine for expressing many cultures.

Australians are also woefully monolingual, particularly the Anglos while two thirds of the world’s population is at least bilingual. We are now an Asian country and we need very urgently to become citizens of Asia by learning their languages and cultures and I’ve been banging on about this for 40 years.

So you are not about to slow down anytime soon?

No. Life is full of beautiful things to discover and if my curiosity instinct is not running one morning when I get up, I’m in trouble.               

This article by Rosemary Desmond originally appeared in the December/January 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.        

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