Australia: Multilingualism and multiculturalism

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu May 29 15:55:44 UTC 2008

Multilingualism and multiculturalism

By Karen Woodman - posted Wednesday, 28 May 2008

>>From the perspective of a Canadian, the current discussion on language
education in Australia is very interesting - primarily because many of
the questions being raised about the viability of language education
have arguably been answered by other international experiences. For
example, growing up in a country where bilingualism - and
multiculturalism - has been official policy for more than 30 years, it
is normal for Canadians to self-identify as "hyphenates" (for example,
Greek-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, French-Canadian, and so on) without
undermining their "Canadian identity".

Thousands of children have graduated from language immersion programs
without losing their first language(s) or suffering any other damage
(in fact, quite the contrary). "Heritage language" programs promote
and celebrate cultural diversity without undermining social order; and
indigenous language programs have been prominent in the cultural
revitalisation programs of the First Nations, which have been key to
supporting development within those communities. Government policies
supporting language education have not driven the country bankrupt,
nor have they negatively had an impact on national or international
opinion. In fact, Canadians are generally known for their tolerance
and openness to other cultures, arguably a product of the cultural
"mosaic" approach (and "additive bilingualism"), rather than the
"melting pot" ("subtractive bilingualism") of, for example, the US.

This is not, of course, to imply Canada is an oasis of harmony and
understanding (there are still linguistic and cultural tensions in
different regions), but rather to underline the fact that official
recognition of cultural and linguistic diversity clearly can have a
real impact on how the population perceives such issues. As a number
of writers have noted, continental Europe has a long tradition of
multilingualism, supported by government via language education and
other policies. The expectation in Europe is that the majority of the
population will study and learn at least one other language. In other
parts of the world, the expectation is that most people will speak
several languages.

Why is the issue of expectations important in a discussion of language

It's because research suggests that we rise to the level of our
expectations. If a population believes that learning an additional
language is normal, expected, useful, and attainable, then the goal is
often attained. This perspective is also supported by research on the
important role of motivation in language learning. Providing
opportunities for language education is only part of the equation -
creating the social, political, economic and psychological
environments in which learning languages are valued is equally

There are psycholinguistic benefits of multilingualism, as well as
economic benefits. Psycholinguistic benefits include both cognitive
and neurolinguistic "flexibility". That is, people who speak more than
one language often find it easier to deal with linguistic and other
complexity, and multilingualism does have an impact on the type and
amount of "wiring" in the brain.

Economically, as humourously illustrated by the HSBC ads in airports,
understanding the languages and cultures of your business partners is
crucial to success - and miscommunication literally costs money. Kevin
Rudd's fluency in Mandarin has already proven beneficial to
Australia's relationship with China, and his government's apology to
the Stolen Generations, which demonstrated both cultural and
linguistic sensitivity, has had a very positive impact on the
International Community's view of Australia.

These examples demonstrate that the benefits of being able to speak to
colleagues and clients literally in their own language are not only a
demonstration of respect and interest, but pragmatically also minimise
miscommunications which can cause political and/or economic damage.

So what does all of this mean to the question of language education in
Australia? Well, as suggested by a number of the previous writers, it
implies the need for both cultural and policy changes at the
government and individual levels. Having a Prime Minister who is
fluent in another language - and one that is considered quite
difficult for many - is a good first start. It demonstrates that
learning a language is possible, and possibly even helpful to one's
career. Providing additional funding for LOTE at all levels of the
school system (including training LOTE teachers) is also necessary. A
long term commitment to such funding (both perceived and real) is
critical, since the results of language education are not immediate.

Developing opportunities for language education - and education about
the value of language education - for adults is also important, as
their views influence both politicians and their own children. Using
technology to support distance and flexible language learning offers
significant potential in this area - as the success of my former
colleagues in languages at UNE can demonstrate.

One advantage of online learning in the teaching of languages is that
- if done well - learners are not restricted by geography in terms of
accessibility AND they can be encouraged to develop their skills
interacting directly with members of the target language community
(for example, via email, forums, skype, gaming, Second Life, MOOs, and
so on). An additional advantage of looking to online educational
options to support language learning is the potential for teaching a
greater diversity of languages across a widespread population of

In terms of which languages to teach (and presumably to fund),
priorities would normally be based on interest and/or relevance.
However, these priorities are not necessarily easy to identify:
Australia is close to Asia, but also retains strong ties to Europe.
Officially supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism, as a basic
principle on a federal and state level, would be a significant
symbolic step in acknowledging the diverse cultural and linguistic
contributions of the diverse populations who contributed to the
development of Australia. Funding for research on current and future
language priorities by state, nationally and internationally could
also help to address this question.

Language education does not have to be a "one-size-fits-all" issue.
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