Speaking the language of us

In 18 months, about 60 people from 30 different nationalities who speak 40 languages in total have been profiled on Multilinguals of Melbourne, an online photojournalism project on Melbournians started by Master of Interpreting and Translation student Laura Blackmore.

It’s a page where Melbourne’s cultural diversity comes into play but perhaps more importantly, highlights the often overlooked but significant role language, translation and interpreting plays in acute life-and-death matters and more broadly, equity and social justice. Disney also recently recognised Laura’s vision and featured her story in their ‘Dream Big Princess’ campaign.

We spoke with Laura about how Multilinguals of Melbourne got going, what she’s learnt from her study at Monash so far, and what she’s planning to do next.

Laura Blackmore
Film still of Disney video on Laura Blackmore

How did the idea for ‘Multilinguals of Melbourne’ come about?

I can’t pinpoint exactly how, but it was one of the many nights up in my dorm at Monash when I was thinking of Humans of New York [photography project turned photojournalism series with two best-selling books], and then I thought of starting Multilinguals of Melbourne.

I always wanted to create something to show my friends and family back home who I was meeting, as I’m not from Melbourne originally – I’m from Jervis Bay in NSW (two hours south of Sydney). 

It started with my roomies first: Clara from Germany, Nive from India, and Clarisse from Taiwan. Through that I started interviewing people in my course, and then some organisations stated sending me messages. Meltomo [an online platform where Melbourne and Japan connect] from Melbourne messaged me, and we did a big group interview, then some organisations from different parts of Australia including a language bookshop in Perth, and then an overseas Language School in Texas contacted me.

Clarisse was one of the first people featured on Mom and also my roommate at the time. She is an international student from Taiwan and was studying her master's at Monash
Clarisse was one of the first people featured on Mom and also my roommate at the time. She is an international student from Taiwan and was studying her master’s at Monash
Nivedita was the first person featured on MoM and was also studying her master's at Monash. She is an international student from India.
Nivedita was the first person featured on MoM and was also studying her master’s at Monash. She is an international student from India.
Clara (left), Nivedita and Clarisse were my roommates when I came up with the idea of MoM and they were all a huge inspiration for starting the blog
Clara (left), Nivedita and Clarisse were my roommates when I came up with the idea of MoM and they were all a huge inspiration for starting the blog

Why did you choose Monash?

I had a friend who also applied to do the Master of Interpreting and Translation, and had heard great things about it, and the course also has the NAATI approval. I also looked up the campus, and campus life looked great as well.

Living on campus at Clayton was great: we had Sunday afternoon mingles, we had a big event for Diwali the Indian festival of Lights, we had a fair, we had sports – just a great community to come back to.

I was so new to Melbourne it was so nice to have people around me on campus. And I was a ten minute walk to classes so couldn’t complain.

Shankar was featured on MoM and was an international student from India who was studying his undergraduate degree at Monash
Shankar was featured on MoM and was an international student from India who was studying his undergraduate degree at Monash
L-R: Clarisse, Nivedita & myself after the very first photoshoot for MoM
L-R: Clarisse, Nivedita & myself after the very first photoshoot for MoM

How was your experience with the Master of Translation and Interpreting course?

With the master’s, I found it quite a bit more challenging than I thought it would be, just because my level of Spanish wasn’t as great as it could have been.

But I still really enjoyed the course I still really enjoyed the challenge, I really enjoyed being with different people as well.

We had core subjects on the theory of translation and practical-based tutorials, where we actually had to translate from Spanish to English with a wide range of people.

We also got to hear about some language-oriented PhD studies. I got to sit in on one where my tutor presented her project: a book, on a famous Mexican author. That was really interesting for me because I had travelled there.

The team who started Meltomo, who are an Australian/Japanese organisation who promote cross-cultural interactions including all things culture, fashion and language and were all featured on MoM
The team who started Meltomo, who are an Australian/Japanese organisation who promote cross-cultural interactions including all things culture, fashion and language and were all featured on MoM

My eyes were really opened with this course, I didn’t realise how hard it would be to translate cultural norms, like pop culture for instance.

People don’t value the profession of translation and interpreting because they don’t know how hard it is. I mean, I can translate something but someone else can come in and translate it quite differently depending how much they know about the culture.

They often say, choose a country to specialise in as there’s so much within that country – politics, law, travelling, tourism – so much that you want to be the best in a particular culture.

Arden, Joslyn and Nathan are from the ACYA VIC BLC (Australia Chinese Youth Association Victoria Bilingual Language Competition) and were all featured on MoM
Arden, Joslyn and Nathan are from the ACYA VIC BLC (Australia Chinese Youth Association Victoria Bilingual Language Competition) and were all featured on MoM

And for me, it’s also about the skills you learn from learning a language. In school, we learn about the ‘three Rs’ – reading, writing, and arithmetic – but these can be learnt from learning another language too. 

The skills you learn from learning another language are applicable to other areas of study and it just opens your eyes to other people who are out there.

Stevi is the most recent person to be featured on MoM and was an international student at Monash
Stevi is the most recent person to be featured on MoM and was an international student at Monash

It also gives you a certain amount of empathy – you know they’re also trying when you meet someone here and they can’t speak English. People don’t generally want to stand out that way. It’s compassion from other people. Being a good human.

Recently, you were a Disney Language and Culture Ambassador, can you tell us a bit about that?

I’d come back from Mexico last year and thought I’d give ‘Multilinguals of Melbourne’ a really good go.

Then about a month later Disney asked if I wanted to be part of the ‘Dream Big Princess’ campaign which was about girls having their own dreams, interests and hobbies, and so I got to be interviewed for that in July last year and it was released in September.

They wanted to change the narrative for girl power and change the face of who they are, like with the Frozen movie. I was in it with two other girls, a cake maker and a boxer who’s going to the Australian Commonwealth Games, hopefully. I felt really empowered that I got to be a part of it.

What did this involve, what was your story for Disney?

I guess by trade I’m a journalist and language lover, and creating ‘Multilinguals of Melbourne’ when I moved to Melbourne was a way for me to make friends too.

I also love connecting people, people say to me, ‘hey, I’m going to South America in a year, how can I learn Spanish?’

And it’s also for 14 year old me. If I had seen something like this when I was 14, I’d think, oh people actually use languages!Film still of Disney video on Laura Blackmore (click the image to view the video)

Where do you envision ‘Multilinguals of Melbourne’ going?

I would love to be able to go and do ‘Multilinguals in Melbourne’ in different parts of Australia and the world – I know that’s a huge goal.

Maybe make mini documentaries capturing Australia for what it is, not just those in languages. I want to keep interviewing people and meeting people at the grassroots level. Maybe collaborate with a print magazine too; I’m putting the feelers out there. I have big dreams, but I guess it’s about what people want too.

On that, I don’t really feel like there’s a company that’s producing these stories – I feel like language gets left off the music and cultural scene in reporting and magazines.

I know languages can feel dry but I think it’s an uncharted area and I want to explore it more. I also feel like I owe it to the people who have been featured on ‘Multilinguals of Melbourne’ and to continue to facilitate connection through our shared passion for language and cultural diversity.

All photos courtesy of Laura Blackmore.

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