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Bursting Australia's monolingual bubble



I'm writing this from Singapore, where there are four official languages and many others. As the only one of these that I speak is English, that is how I am getting by — following the (plentiful) street signs and economising my spoken words for maximum comprehension.

Language textbooksAs a former British colony in a global culture and economy dominated by English, Singapore demonstrates the function of the language as a lingua franca — a common language between people who do not share the same native language.

A multi-country poll conducted by Pew Research last year found that nearly 70 per cent of Australian participants felt that speaking English is 'very important' to the Australian identity — more important than sharing customs and traditions and much more important than being born here.

Over 250 languages were spoken across the country at the time that English arrived with British colonisation. From these brutal beginnings, English has been a strict marker of the contours of Australianness and continues to centre ethno-national identity. As such, policies around language acquisition tend towards extractive and conservative logics such as 'getting ahead' in business and security, or preserving the tenets of classical western education.

As Misty Adoniou writes in The Conversation, 'There is a clear hierarchy of languages in Australia. English is at the top. Next are the "classical" languages like French and German, particularly when learned at school. These are followed by languages deemed useful for Australia's economic prosperity — e.g. Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese — but only if they are being learned as "foreign" languages. Because that is quite clever, learning a foreign language.

'But if they are languages already spoken in the home, they slip down the hierarchy of languages, into the community languages pile, along with about 245 other languages.'

Adoniou refers here to an important relationship between class, formal education, and language in Australia. 'Bilingualism is considered class privilege in Australia,' explains author and essayist Stephanie Lai. Chinese-Australian by way of Malaysia, Lai tells Eureka Street she was speaking several languages by the time she was five years old as a matter of course.


"Speaking languages other than English at home or in communities has a lower status than official academic achievement in the study of specific languages."


However, as Adoniou observes, while 'about 20 per cent of the Australian population speaks a language other than English' and '250 languages are spoken in homes around the country', there is little connection between the languages taught in schools, and the languages spoken in homes. Speaking languages other than English at home or in communities has a lower status than official academic achievement in the study of specific languages.

I was reminded of this recently when someone asked me if I speak other languages because I had been sent to an expensive school in my youth. To be sure, class privilege is somewhat responsible for the fact that I can speak Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. But it is also true that my interest in learning them came from hearing Maltese, Japanese, Italian, Polish, Tagalog, Ilocano, Irish, Arabic, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Khmer, Vietnamese and Malay, with the very occasional exposure to Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri, in the suburban family homes of school and church friends.

Of this world, I am one of the minority who went to university, where I took the opportunity to study Spanish and Portuguese and do PhD research in Latin America. And, as I was doing this at the sandstone University of Sydney, the people who I practised with were neighbours, colleagues, and acquaintances who had migrated to Australia from Chile, El Salvador and Brazil.

In both scenarios I was connected to languages by sharing a daily community life with people from all over the world as much as by exercises, exams, and tests. In a multilingual official culture, English could have been our lingua franca rather than the other languages being subjugated on the one hand and reified on the other.

I wonder if, were English reframed in Australia as a lingua franca rather than being promulgated as the mandatory language, the linguistic diversity in this nation would have more room to breathe.



Ann DeslandesAnn Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher from Sydney. Read her other writing at xterrafirma.net and tweet her @Ann_dLandes.

Topic tags: Ann Deslandes, language



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Existing comments

Samuel Beckett decided by instinct whether to write a work in English or French. Perhaps we might look forward to an Australian whose Nobel laureate in literature is for a tradition of saying something about this country that could only be said in Khmer.

Roy Chen Yee | 15 January 2018  

The Greeks who migrated from Egypt to Australia and other countries spoke four or five languages. My parents spoke Greek, French, Italian, English, and Arabic. Furthermore, there are many Greek words which have found their way into European languages.

Terry Stavridis | 16 January 2018  

Splitting the atom would have been easier than bursting Australia's monolingual bubble. I find it ironic that we still use the expression 'lingua franca' to describe a language that serves as a means of communication between different peoples. Lingua Franca (Italian = Frankish tongue) was a type of Italian mixed with French, Greek, Arabic and some other languages spoken on the coasts of the Mediterranean. Trade and Commerce made its evolution a 'sine qua non'. Had Captain James Cook decided not to return to England from Tahiti via the east coast of New Holland and landed in Botany Bay in April 1770 we might have ended up speaking French and eating witchetty grubs. The expansion of the British Empire ensured the spread of English, that most absorbent of languages, as an almost universal lingua franca. Other than by military conquest I cannot envisage many Australians seeing any need for a language other than English.

Uncle Pat | 16 January 2018  

Thank you Ann for your thoughtful piece. As for your final question of wonderment, though, I believe that we cannot ignore the brutal pace of global anglicisation of most other countries' language usage patterns in our lifetimes. Against this backdrop, reframing English as our lingua franca is not feasible.

Christopher Ryan | 20 January 2018  

Hello readers. I'm interested in making the connection between schooling, education and language. Appreciating that English is accepted as an important communication tool in Aus.; that in 21st century we're looking at worthwhile universal curricula and that more than 70% Aus population tries to get by with significant hearing loss, significantly from the privilege of our longevity, I'd like to suggest that the core learnings are Eng. supported by Auslan; to include reading and presenting arguments for life-style decisions and other problem-solving ; music. math/numeracy

helen cantwell | 28 January 2018  

Unless they come from a migrant family Australian children tend to play at learning a foreign language. All my children learnt German for several years but only my eldest daughter can communicate effectively in German. I teach English in St Petersburg and there the students tend to work hard at learning English. Me learning French in High School was elitist (only the A and B classes were considered smart enough to learn two languages French plus Latin or German or Geography in the A class and French in the B class). My French was never used except to read and translate articles in my university studies and subsequently my work demanded that I speak Indonesian (2.5 years living in Jakarta) and my recreational interests demanded that I speak, write and read Russian (something I have been working on for the past ten years and is proving useful when I travel - twice a year; one of which is to Russia).

Alan Sargeant | 04 December 2018  

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