Language is the key to unlocking culture and, in a shrinking, swirling, multicultural world, multilingualism is a crucial tool. Michael Shirrefs asks why Australia, a country that proudly spruiks its multicultural credentials, is still so monolingual.
Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What most of the world seems to do effortlessly, Australia has managed to make into a national impediment. Most of the world’s people acquire second and third languages as easily as they achieve basic literacy and numeracy. It’s seen as being as crucial to surviving in a culturally multifarious world as any other fundamental skill. So why not here in Australia?
It is certainly an odd pathology in many parts of the Commonwealth, where English has always reigned supreme; we feel overt foreignness should usually be kept under wraps. We behave as if only experts should dabble in the linguistic arts. Look at Kevin Rudd. Our former prime minister dared to publicly speak in Mandarin to the Chinese, and was labelled ‘the Manchurian candidate’—which is a very nasty code for ‘cultural traitor’. But why? It’s not as if we view a Chinese delegation coming to Australia and speaking to us in English as anything other than right and proper. In fact, we assume that’s what will happen, and that hints at part of the problem.
We suffer the hangover of both a long history of clearly inappropriate cultural superiority and geographic isolation. We now have the nagging feeling that we’ve been left behind by a world that has a far better grip on the nuances of culture and language. There is no denying that the English language has spread like a virus; it is used almost universally as an auxiliary language. Like many products of British Empire, Australia has always told itself that English is sufficient. It’s part cultural arrogance, part fear and part geography.
Language is one of the most powerful weapons of colonial power. Impose a language on a subjugated people and you’ve largely won the battle of cultural ascendency. The most successful imperial powers of the past 500 years have been the English, the Spanish and the French, and all three countries still persist in a sort of cultural and linguistic chauvinism that is alarming to outsiders. It’s a lot like a game of blink—whoever denies the existence or value of the other person’s language and culture for the longest time, wins.
In Australia, it had a name: the White Australia policy. It was our official excuse to stomp on foreignness, and we did so with cruel efficiency. People that didn’t sound like us were called ‘wogs’ or ‘chinks’. If they dared to speak a foreign language, they were ostracised. We did the same to our Indigenous peoples. They were told that to speak in their native tongue was a sin. As a consequence, many migrant and Aboriginal languages were erased from our society within the space a generation. It’s a level of cross-cultural vandalism from which we may never fully recover.
One of the only aberrations in this very Anglo view of our world was the widespread teaching of French in schools. However, for generations of students French was more like aversion therapy, taught in a manner that was meant to say, ‘see, it’s all too hard and boring and foreign’.
None of this was helped by the fact that we were far from Europe and real-world experience of European languages was therefore difficult for most Australians to acquire. That’s hardly an excuse in 2014. Australians have become one of the most itinerant groups in the world. The scale of our travel is enough to keep small economies solvent.
However, travel isn’t enough. Brief exposures to other cultures and different languages don’t translate into genuine multicultural understanding. It has to happen on an ongoing and structural basis at home, not just abroad. This highlights the fact that Australia has never had to navigate the proximity of another powerful culture, with a distinct language, right on our doorstep. Of course most Europeans speak many languages; they have to. Take Germany for example, which shares borders with nine other countries, each one with distinct languages or dialects. Africa is the same, and even in the USA the acquisition of Spanish is seen as important with a trading neighbour like Mexico so close by.
We suffer the hangover of both a long history of clearly inappropriate cultural superiority and geographic isolation. We now have the nagging feeling that we’ve been left behind by a world that has a far better grip on the nuances of culture and language. Yet instead of dealing with our own linguistic inadequacies, we turn the tables and blame outsiders.
‘While our society might be multicultural, our institutions are mono-cultural,’ says University of Melbourne Linguistics Professor Joseph Lo Bianco. This means that, when it comes to teaching foreign languages, we ‘think’ with the narrowness of a nation that still only truly privileges English. The evidence is in the dissonance between the political rhetoric and the realities of trying to teach foreign languages in Australia.
At an official level, there is supposedly a renewed push, in some states, to make the teaching of foreign languages mandatory in our primary and secondary schools. The goal is a by-product of things like the Asian Century White Paper.
Also listen to: What does it mean to be Asia literate?
The national curriculum has been turned into a political football and on a national level we look inept at embracing real progress towards credible long-term language teaching policy. Good policy can’t be subject to the whim of party ideology, to be abandoned or totally reconfigured every time there’s a change of government. It takes generations, and stable support, to get this sort of teaching properly in place.
The answer, it seems, lies largely in going it alone. A handful of schools, mostly in Victoria, have learned that autonomy can work. Instead of passively waiting for sense and direction from ‘head office’, they’ve formulated their own immersive foreign language programs, and have demanded support and resources from their education departments. For those schools with vision and stamina, like Richmond West Primary in Melbourne’s inner east, the results have been startling.
Thirty years ago this school, located between housing commission flats in Melbourne’s Vietnamese heartland, began not one, but two immersive bilingual programs. The first was a Vietnamese program from prep to grade two, mainly for children of local families.
The second program was far more ambitious. Children could take an immersive Chinese stream right through from prep to grade six. This means that for two days a week the students do everything in Mandarin: maths, geography, history—everything. The program was unprecedented in Australia when it started, and even today stands out as largely unique. Nothing rewards the school’s efforts more than when past students come back to relate the value of this teaching to their adult lives. It’s a powerful, evidence-based argument that ought to be held up nationally as a model for other schools and for policy-makers.
Listen to Michael’s full documentary: Monolingual in a Multilingual World
The sad fact is that even when politicians do get the value of linguistic diversity, bureaucrats either mire the ambition in recalcitrance or try to reinvent the wheel without looking at the few places where the successes are abundantly clear. So for schools wanting to take on the serious task of introducing proper bilingual programs, passion isn’t enough. Sheer bloody-minded persistence and strong leadership seem to be the only way forward.
Do we have a chance to change all this? The truth is that we will never catch up with much of the rest of the world, but we can certainly do a better job against our natural English-language peers: England, New Zealand and the USA.
© 2014—Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN