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A linguist's vision for multicultural Australia


Exclusion Under the Howard government, a discourse of overt exclusion and division was rampant, manifested for instance in the demonisation of asylum seekers, attacks on multiculturalism, on Muslims and African refugees and the exclusionary debate on 'Australian values'.

The Rudd government has followed this by a discourse of covert exclusion through invisibility. The Prime Minister is not on public record using the term 'multicultural(ism)' or any synonym such as 'cultural diversity' when referring to Australian society. There is no minister for multicultural affairs, only a parliamentary secretary. The government gives priority to certain Asian languages in schools, describing them as 'foreign languages'. It disregards the substantial communities of Australian speakers of these languages, especially Mandarin. There was no section at the 2020 Summit dealing with Australia's cultural diversity and how it can be harnessed as a national asset.

Rudd does have a social inclusion policy, but so far it has not included a cultural component. It does not seem to have developed beyond socioeconomic inclusion. Not only refugees and migrants, but also the aged, disabled, deaf or blind, for instance, all of whom are likely to be socially excluded in some ways, appear to be covered on the agenda only if they are poor, unemployed or homeless.

Social inclusion ought to empower all sections of Australian society to fulfil their potential and to make their contribution to the nation from their background and experience. Social inclusion should entail enabling each person to be fully accepted. That means making the label 'Australian' broad enough to acknowledge diversity within 'Australian identity'. It carries an obligation for each section of the Australian population to represent others positively and fairly.

It is particularly important to consider those who are doubly excluded or marginalised, such as linguistic or religious minorities within a given ethnic group, and aged, deaf, blind or disabled migrants.

There are two other reasons why cultural inclusion must be part of the social inclusion policy.

The first is that multiculturalism has been marginalised by federal governments for several years despite being a demographic reality.

Also, past Australian policies of multiculturalism have been social inclusion policies. They have given all Australians the right to express their own culture and beliefs, equality of treatment and opportunity, and the right to contribute to the social, political and economic life of Australia.

The term 'multiculturalism' has been ambiguous. Perhaps that is why it is sometimes misunderstood. Some misinterpretations reflect a monocultural mindset. The policy has sometimes been misinterpreted to mean giving 'minorities' special resources which should be shared equally across the community.

There are three meanings of multicultural(ism) which have to be recognised: the demographic reality of Australia; the nation as a cohesive entity, and a particular social policy.

In my opinion, it would be an impoverishment not to be able to use the words 'multiculturalism' and the adjective 'multicultural' for the first two meanings. There is no appropriate synonym.

The policy, however, could equally well be renamed 'cultural inclusion'. It is important to see multicultural policy within the Australian context and not to confuse it with discussions appropriate to other countries.

Australian multiculturalism has succeeded largely because integration has been a two-way process. But even that statement suggests simplistically that there have been a single majority and a single minority group. In reality there have been many interacting cultures.

Australia has done well to develop flexible multilingual frameworks such as SBS radio and TV, Year 12 exams in a multiplicity of languages, government schools of languages, and telephone interpreting.

As long as we see social exclusion mainly as socioeconomic exclusion, we focus on what is lacking. But it is both an act of social justice and good economic policy to recognise the potential contribution made by each individual. If we make cultural inclusion a dimension of social inclusion, it should foster the contribution that a bicultural or bilingual person can contribute to the nation, to creativity and to dynamism in workplaces.

The training of the mind afforded by bilingualism, for example, encourages more flexible means of problem solving. Such qualities go unnoticed in a society with a pervasive monolingual mindset. The value of multilingual resources and of grassroots experience in inter-cultural communication are also neglected, even though these things could give us a special role in our region.

Unless social inclusion policy can move beyond the socioeconomic dimension, it may further the social exclusion of significant sections of Australian society.

Michael ClyneProfessor Michael Clyne, of the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, and the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University, is author of numerous books and articles on multilingualism, sociolinguistics and inter-cultural communciation, including Australia's Language Potential (UNSW Press, 2005).


Topic tags: social inclusion, multiculturalism, languages, bilingualism, linguist, rudd



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Existing comments

The onus is on the descendants of the white European settlers to face this test of humanitarian empathy. Too often, the expectations are directed to the new arrivals.

Ray O'Donoghue | 18 November 2008  

Professor Clyne's article is correct that we should be talking about social inclusion. Multiculturalism has attracted a variety of meanings over the years without clear definition of what it actually means.

Terry Stavridis | 18 November 2008  

Hey Michael, socially including 'the poor, unemployed and homeless' is not a bad start! A fair slice of those would include the aged, deaf, blind, refugees and immigrants, wouldn't it? It was Shakespeare who wrote 'a man who knows two languages is worth two men'.

Can we extrapolate this to conclude that a man who knows three languages is worth six men, and so on exponentially? I believe that in the interest of international understanding lists of saying and proverbs from other languages should be taught to Australian school kids.

Here's a couple of Italian ones:
1) If all goes well we'll be ruined.
2) Everything's ok, nothing's in order.
3).A house guest is like a fish, after 3 days it stinks.

Claude Rigney | 18 November 2008  

An excellent and concise article by Prof Clyne. As a person who has been involved both at the community and party political levels I can only agree with the assessment of the attitude of the Rudd Government and especially with the attitude of the Mionister responsible for 'Social Inclusion'. To illustrate my point - immediately after the change of the leader and deputy of the Federal Parliamentary ALP, an article on Social Inclusion, with Julia Gillard as the author' appeared in the FECCA publication - MOSAIC. As a community activist and a member of the the ALP I wrote to her putting a number of questions arising out of her article. Up to date I have not received either an acknowledgement of my letters or an answer to any of them. Only a month ago I made further enquiries and I was told that 'there was no record of my letter'. The aspects of social inclusion outlined by Michael Clyne is definitely not on the Rudd-Gillard agenda.

nick agocs | 19 November 2008  

Professor Clyne's timely comment shoudl also help us to rethink our traditional view about teaching Chinese in Australia. Chinese is not only a foreign language to Australia, it is also a community language and as such we are teaching a kind of Chinese that is different from that taught in China, and because of this, it is important for us to teach our Chinese for Chinese students from
China in order to help them to understand our view about Chinese culture and through which, understand Australia.

Dr Lijian Hong | 19 November 2008  

I welcome your remarks about a policy that is culturally inclusive. For me it puts a whole new meaning on making our language inclusive as well. Thank you, Michael!

Vivienne Goldstein | 19 November 2008  

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