Australia: Let's send a message to the world … in their languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon May 5 12:54:17 UTC 2008

Let's send a message to the world … in their languages

John Hajek and Yvette Slaughter
May 5, 2008

THERE has been much discussion recently about language issues in
Australian media, revolving around two closely intertwined areas:
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's public speaking of Chinese and anxiety
about Australia's language capacity. As for the first, it's a highly
commendable public act. It has generated real interest here and
overseas, and reignited debate about the state of languages in
Australia and in our schools in particular. It takes real courage for
an Australian politician to speak anything other than English. Despite
the snide comments from some quarters, it also sends a powerful
message to students and voters that it is perfectly all right to be a
multilingual Australian. Of course, Rudd's not the first multilingual
prime minister in an English-speaking country — they are the norm in
Canada, and former British PM Tony Blair spoke French publicly — but
it has taken a long time for anything like this to occur in Australia.

As for our language skills in general, the signs are worrying. The
proportion of students completing language study in schools has
dropped from 40% in the 1960s to about 13% today. It is the reverse of
what is happening elsewhere in the world. Our international
competitors are getting better at speaking other people's languages,
especially English. The fall in the number of Australian students
studying Asian languages was identified as a major national problem at
the 2020 Summit. Fortunately, the Federal Government is already on the
ball, which is no surprise given the Prime Minister's special
interest. During the election campaign, Rudd announced the ALP's new
National Asian Language and Studies in Schools Program, under which it
would provide $68.6 million over four years. It is remarkably like the
earlier National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools
Program that the Howard government terminated at the end of 2002.

It is admirable that the Government is prepared to put more into
languages and Asian studies in Australia. But this revived policy, and
indeed the current debate on Australia's language skills (or lack
thereof), seems to address only part of the equation. The Government's
silence on European languages is deafening. It is far too focused on
Asia and the policy sends several wrong signals. First, it suggests
Australia need only engage with some of its nearest Asian neighbours.
But it is a globalised world and Australia needs to engage with every
country on every continent, including Europe and South America. More
of us need to be speaking more languages.

It is an entirely plausible outcome. Eurobarometer language surveys
for EU countries show astonishing levels of multilingualism — that's
right, people speaking three or four languages, not just two, in
extremely wealthy countries. The EU says European citizens should be
expected to speak at least their mother tongue and two other
languages. Why can't we do the same and do it well? That could be one
Asian and one European language if students wish. It would be a
strategic outcome for Australia. Second, some languages, such as
Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean, are portrayed as implicitly
better than others since only these receive the special funding. This
approach won't necessarily get more children to learn a language, but
it will get schools to shift to the lucky four because that's where
the money is (temporarily).

We have seen these linguistic musical chairs before and schools have
been burnt by it. Our research shows that many schools that responded
by replacing European languages with Asian languages were left holding
the baby when special funding ended. They have since dropped languages
and they won't be going there again. What's the solution? We need
clear, uniform and well-funded federal and state language policies
that allow our children proper access to a range of Asian and European
languages. Diversity is the key. After all, Australia is already a
multilingual nation, with 28% of Melburnians speaking a language other
than English at home. Why not build on that? Furthermore, the current
$68 million over four years is a drop in the ocean. We also need to
see how and why countries such as Finland and Luxembourg are so
successful in language teaching. There seems to be no crowded
curriculum there and they do well in literacy and numeracy. In
addition to funding, attitude is critical. In these countries,
languages are highly valued as an essential part of education, as
basic as maths and English by governments, educators, parents and
students. We need to do the same.

Associate Professor John Hajek is discipline chair of languages and
director of the Research Centre for Multilingualism and Cross-cultural
Communication (RUMACCC) at the University of Melbourne. Dr Yvette
Slaughter is a researcher in RUMACCC.

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list