Review of Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jan 16 16:26:29 UTC 2004

This review is the first in a series that we are inaugurating for the
Language Policy List.  If others of you have books you'd like to see
reviewed for this constituency, please let me know.

Reviewer: Joyce Milambiling, University of Northern Iowa (USA)
Book Title: Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy
Book Editors: Joseph Lo Bianco and Rosie Wickert
Publisher: Language Australia
Linguistic Field(s): Language Policy and Planning, Language and


Lo Bianco, J., & Wickert, R., eds. (2001) Australian Policy Activism in
Language and Literacy. Melbourne: Language Australia, xii + 401 pp,
paperback ISBN: 1-878768-31-2, AUS$ 45.00.  Available for order from:


Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy chronicles the
processes and alliances associated with recent language policy in
Australia. It is an edited volume that consists of 17 separate chapters
divided into an introduction and five parts.

The introduction, "Activists and Policy Politics," is written by the two
editors, and outlines for the reader the period dealt with in this book
(1972-1996), as well as the intellectual and political territory that the
editors and the other authors intend to cover in this description and
analysis of policy activism as applied to language and literacy in

Part 1, "Openings," contains one chapter written by Joseph Lo Bianco, one
of the editors. This chapter sets one of the dominant themes of the book,
the tone of which is summed up in the title: ">From policy to anti-policy:
How fear of language rights took policy-making out of community hands."
The author states that the article has two functions within this volume:
1) To provide a framework and define terms for the entire discussion
throughout the book; and 2) for Lo Bianco, the author not only of this
chapter but also of the 1987 National Policy on Languages, to give his
"take" on what has happened in Australian language policy (and why), the
consequences of policies which he terms "anti-pluralist," and some
predictions for the future of language policy in that country.

Part 2, "Processes, Politics and the Effects of Policy Text Production,"
includes three articles written by insiders to the policy-making process.
Two of the authors, Rosie Wickert (Chapter 3), and Helen Moore (Chapter
4), write from, among other perspectives, those of activists in adult
literacy and migrant education respectively. Paul Brock, in Chapter 2,
describes his role as a consultant to the government in 1990-1991 during
the creation of one of the major Australian language policies.

Part 3, "Policy Positions," consists of three articles that, according to
the introduction, represent "different approaches to understanding how
policy problems and solutions are constituted in particular kinds of ways
with an intention to generate different solutions" (p. 6). Singh's
contribution (Chapter 5) is concerned with the issues of immigration,
multiculturalism, relations between Australia and Asia, and Australian
identity. In Chapter 6, Taylor addresses Indigenous Australian language
and literacy, including the overt and covert conflicts over the teaching
and learning of Standard Australian English. Castleton (Chapter 7)
analyzes the content of adult literacy policy in Australia by focusing on
a government report on workplace literacy to see, in the author's words,
"how knowledge about workplace literacy has been constructed in Australia,
and the consequences of this particular construction" (p.165).

Part 4, "Policy and the Contexts of Practice," is the longest section of
this book, consisting of nine chapters. The purpose of this section is
summed up in the introduction as illustrating "what happens in different
contexts as an application of the wider principles" (p.7). In Chapter 10,
for example, McKay describes the effects that a 1998 national literacy
plan and literacy benchmarks associated with this plan have had on English
as a Second Language learners. The author focuses not only on concrete
aspects of the literacy plan, but also on its underlying ideology and
potential long-term effects. This section of the book also includes an
article on the effect of language policy on the field of interpreting and
translating (Ozolins, Chapter 12), another article that considers how sign
language and Deafness have been represented in language policy documents
(Power, Chapter 13), and one contribution near the end of this section
that looks at which languages have been characterized as "priority
languages" in Australia during a recent 12 year period (Scarino &
Papademetre, Chapter 15).

Part 5, "New Openings," like the first part of the book, consists of a
single article. In this final chapter Jack Frawley "explores the concept
of print literacy as being socially and culturally driven, and its
positioning as a variable social technology within the context of an
Aboriginal community" (p. 345). The co-editors state in the introduction
that they chose this article as the final one because it contributes "new
theorizations, perspectives and possibilities" (p. 9).

Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy is an impressive
contribution to the language policy literature. As an outsider to the
Australian language policy debate, I was thoroughly informed by the
different chapters in this volume on the issues and chronology as well as
the theoretical and practical debates in this area of Australian policy
during the last 30 years. The contributors come from a wide range of
academic institutions and represent many different disciplines and areas
of experience in providing service to the Australian public. As a result
of reading this book, I was better able to understand and even to
recognize some shortcomings in a recent journal article on minority
language education in Australia.

The book, as described in the synopsis, is subdivided into an introduction
and five parts. The first and the last parts (also referred to as
"sections" in this review), each consists of single chapters. As I was
reading, I found the differences in the subject matter of the content of
the articles in the three middle sections to be quite subtle. In
evaluating the structure of the book I could not always tell why one
article was put in one section rather than another. It appeared to me that
the Singh article, "Advocating the Sustainability of Linguistic
Diversity," to take one example, could have just as well been placed in
the "Policy and the Contexts of Practice" section.

That said, the organization did not in the least detract from the value of
the book overall and its 17 individual chapters. The most fascinating, and
to my mind worthwhile contributions in the volume paired a discussion and
analysis of language policy with an area in which the author was
well-versed and for which he/she provided specific examples from the
field. Wickert's description in Chapter 3 of the role of literacy
activists in the production of language policies benefited greatly from
the author's more than 20 year involvement in adult basic education.
Similarly, Power's excellent analysis in Chapter 13 of the representation
of deafness and sign language in Australian government policy documents
over a seven year period (1983-1990), would not have been possible nor as
effective had the author not had such a long association with research in
the field. The most interesting material in the book, exemplified in most
of the chapters, was on how different programs and populations have been
impacted (directly or indirectly) by the various language policies enacted
during the period covered by the book, and what effect the policies and
policy-making processes have had on the individual actors.

The writing and clear presentation/justification of often controversial
views are both strong points of this book. Ozolins' account of the
interpreting translation (I/T) field in Chapter 12 provides a
comprehensive picture of this field and how it has been affected, not
always positively, by recent language policy decisions in Australia. The
author's use of four examples on pages 270-273 plainly shows how the state
and federal governments have had different effects on I/T, with the
national level, in the author's view, proving to be the crucial one (p.
272). Several of the articles are good examples of how to take strong
positions on a topic, and how to argue individual points convincingly. For
example, Nicholls (Chapter 16) critiques the decision by the government of
the Northern Territory to eliminate bilingual education programs for
Indigenous language speakers. She argues that the decision was based on
the "cultural logic of elimination," a logic that the author says goes
against the rhetoric of reconciliation. As another example, Singh, in
"Advocating the Sustainability of Linguistic Diversity," presents the
concept of what he terms "White Australian Politics" in support of his
contention that earlier "colonialist thinking" is still exerting an effect
on language education policies in Australia (p.124).

There were only a few points throughout the book when I thought that the
writing could have been more succinct, or when the different parts of one
article did not fit together smoothly. Chapter 2 by Brock, for example,
could have benefited from some editing to cut out redundancy and
overabundance of detail (at least in my opinion) regarding what it means
to be an insider to the policy-making process, and regarding some of the
idiosyncrasies of the different actors in the account he is presenting.
Also, although the interview data was integral to Moore's discussion of
policy intervention in the Adult Migrant English Program in Chapter 4,
some of the excerpts were very long, and the author did not provide enough
information on who the individual interviewees were (not their actual
identities but rather their particular positioning within the discussion)
and why their comments (rather than someone else's) were being provided at
that particular point in the article.

Although some of the contributions contained technical or field-specific
language, this did not generally interfere with the readability of the
text. Although it was not clear either within or on the cover of the book
itself or on the publisher's website what the intended audience of this
book is, I assume that readers will come to this volume with experience
either in linguistics, policymaking, individual fields like literacy or
deafness, or that some (many?) of the readers will be from Australia and
therefore familiar with much of the terminology and references within
individual articles.

The articles in this volume cover many different topics and, even though
the authors represent some diversity in terms of their opinions on the
past, present and future of language policy in Australia, I didn't find
much support for the editors' claim on page 9 that "There is a wide
variety of viewpoints represented in this book." For the most part, the
authors seem to agree that the 1987 National Policy on Languages (NPL) was
more firmly grounded in pluralist principles and for that and other
reasons preferable to later legislation, especially the 1991 Australian
Language and Literacy Policy (ALLP). Most of the authors in Australian
Policy Activism in Language and Literacy maintain that policies after 1987
have retreated from the earlier stance and principles, and I think it is
fair to say that most of the authors in this volume also view the earlier
policy positions as superior. Personally, I happen to be sympathetic to
the ideology behind the 1987 policy, especially the idea that everyone (in
Australia or anywhere else) should be bilingual or multilingual. I also
believe that several authors in this book (including the two editors) make
a convincing case for the greater desirability of the tenets of the NPL,
especially as applied to specific populations. However, despite the fact
that one of the chapters is authored by a consultant on the 1991 ALLP
(Brock  in Chapter 2 ), and that some of the other authors of this volume
under review bring up some minor criticisms of the 1987 NPL (e.g.,
Nicholls on p. 338, Powers on pp. 284-285, and Ozolins on p. 268), it does
not appear that, overall, the book contains what could truly be considered
"a variety of viewpoints."

The content of the articles is well-documented, and I found no case of
missing references or contradictory dates or facts. The supporting parts
of the volume, namely the table of contents, abbreviation list, list of
contributors and reference list, are clearly written and organized. The
abbreviation and reference lists in particular are potentially useful to a
wide variety of readers, especially those who are unfamiliar with language
policy in Australia and who may need guidance through the plethora of
abbreviations and acronyms common in institutional contexts, or who would
like to read further on language policy in general and language policy in
Australia. One feature that would have been helpful is an index of terms
and names used throughout. An index would have been valuable in a book
such as this one for locating the specific topics in which the reader is
interested, and because of the editors' claim that different perspectives
are represented here. An index would guide the reader to all mentions of a
term or proper name throughout the book, thus helping to focus the reading
and enabling the reader to make comparisons more easily.

In sum, Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy is an
important contribution to the field of language policy because it covers
so many different facets of how policy is formulated and by whom, how
individual policy problems are constituted and often adjusted, and what
actually happens in different contexts when policy is engaged to solve
problems and/or improve situations. The concentration on language policy
in one country, although the global context is certainly referenced
throughout the book, focuses attention on how a "single" case is really
much more than that due to the complexity of the issues and the lack of
consensus in such a diverse nation as Australia. Finally, the book makes
abundantly clear the statement that "Policy dialogue is both necessary and
possible, and indeed, has been a feature of the Australian language and
literacy policy experience" (p.3)

About the Reviewer:
Joyce Milambiling is Associate Professor in the English Department, TESOL
Section, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls. Her research centers on
the educational applications of linguistics in the U.S. and Southeast
Asia, including second/foreign language learning and teaching, language
policy, bilingualism and bilingual education, and language teacher
education. Among her publications are articles in TESOL Quarterly, Theory
into Practice, and Language Magazine.

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