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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Australia's Language Potential

Michael Clyne

Last week's edition of Curriculum Leadership presented the National Statement for Languages Education in Australian Schools. This week the journal provides extracts from the Introduction to Australia's Language Potential, a recently published book that passionately endorses the need for foreign language instruction in Australia’s schools.


This book is about inclusion – about legitimating and valuing Australia’s multilingualism, about using and sharing our multilingual resources to make it easier and more pleasurable for all of us to become bi- or multilingual. It is about empowering people in this country who have another language in addition to English – a project that Australia embarked on in the last quarter of the 20th century. We are very fortunate that our national language and lingua franca, English, is also the most widespread international lingua franca. However, as I hope to show, we disadvantage ourselves if we believe that one language is sufficient. As General Peter Cosgrove, then Chief of the Australian Defence Forces, expressed it: ‘Language skills and cultural sensitivity will be the new currency of this world order’.

In our global situation, we need human resources in as many languages as possible to understand what people really mean, whether they are using English or another language. Because we have English as our national language and lingua franca, we are not committed to one particular ‘foreign language’ in our educational institutions.We have the opportunity to diversify and utilise language resources from all over the world to build on. Children who develop more than one language early can develop means of thinking that are of advantage to them. We can greatly benefit from the multilingual base that we already have in this country if we build on it so that eventually everyone can participate in our multilingual society. We have languages from all over the world, languages from many different families, with different sociolinguistic histories. According to the 2001 Census, 16 per cent of our population speak a language other than English at home, 29 per cent in Sydney and 27 per cent in Melbourne. But, as we will discuss in chapter 1, these are underestimates.

This book argues that we need to develop our language potential to the fullest – so that young Australians, regardless of their background, can attain a high level of competence in at least one language in addition to English – to benefit them culturally, cognitively, in communicative competence, and in many cases in terms of understanding themselves and their families. At the same time, benefits will accrue to our nation economically and in our communication with other countries. All this is happening to some extent, but not as much as it could. There is a paradox between the linguistic diversity of our population and our gross under-utilisation of this diversity. For instance, in an international survey mentioned in chapter 1, Australian business leaders were competent in fewer languages than their counterparts in 27 other countries.

The greatest impediment to recognising, valuing and utilising our language potential is a persistent monolingual mindset. Such a mindset sees everything in terms of monolingualism being the norm, even though there are more bi- and multilinguals in the world than monolinguals and in spite of our own linguistic diversity. It views multilingualism as outside the possible experience of ‘real Australians’ or even in the too-hard basket. It is the monolingual mindset that does not understand that developing an individual’s language skills in any language benefits their skills in another language.

The monolingual mindset has, however, succeeded in creating the myth of the overcrowded school curriculum that has no space for any language other than English and the one that presupposes that learning and knowing another language detracts from English literacy. The monolingual mindset finds it hard to distinguish between ‘bilingualism’ and ‘monolingualism in a language other than the national language’ (in this case English) and sometimes believes that using another language is an indication of inability or unwillingness to speak English at all. In chapter 2, we will advance evidence that all this is diametrically the opposite to the real situation.

Within the past two decades, leading international scholars on bilingualism have acclaimed the achievements of Australia as a predominantly English-speaking nation that has developed an exemplary language policy recognising both English and all other languages used within the nation (see chapter 5).While language policy is no longer high on the public agenda, overseas visitors are still impressed by some of the icons of multilingualism in Australia, which provide for a flexible system to which new languages can be added (and from which languages no longer deemed to be needed can be removed) – SBS Television, ethnic and multilingual radio, languages accredited for the Year 12 examination, the Telephone Interpreter Service, and the multilingual holdings of local public libraries.

This book is written for the general reader interested in exploring some issues of multilingualism in Australian society. It attempts to contribute towards placing these issues back on the Australian agenda. It provides material to help understand Australia’s language potential and how it can be better realised. The issues are seen from the perspective of a professional linguist who was himself born and raised bilingually in Australia and who is the father of an Australian-born bilingual. The general reader is invited to gloss over any section they may find too technical.

The first part of the agenda is to recognise our multilingualism. Chapter 1 sketches the demography of community languages, providing statistics on how they are distributed. Chapter 2 presents evidence and arguments for valuing our multilingualism, in the interests of the individual, the family, the community and the nation. Chapter 3, on fostering and transmitting multilingualism, examines language maintenance and shift patterns across ethnolinguistic communities in Australia, considering factors in the process of shift to English. It also offers advice to families raising, or wishing to raise, their children in more than one language. Chapter 4 is concerned with spreading multilingualism from the ethnic communities to the wider population, the role of the education system, and the current controversies surrounding ‘background’ and ‘non-background’ learners. Chapter 5 examines the changing fortunes of language policy in Australia, while chapter 6 summarises a collaborative strategy for managing linguistic diversity in which different institutions are able to play a role.

Michael Clyne has held professorial appointments in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, where he is now an honorary professorial fellow, and at Monash University, where he is Professor Emeritus. He has written extensively on bi- and multilingualism, sociolinguistics, intercultural communication and second language acquisition, and has had a strong involvement in advocacy of bilingualism, pluralistic language policies, and second language programs in schools.

Australia's Language Potential.
UNSW PRESS, October 2005, paperback, $39.95
email: gabriella.sterio@unsw.edu.au


Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Language and languages
Languages other than English (LOTE)