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Locked out of our mother tongues

  • 27 March 2018


On my first day of going to primary school in Lakemba, I understood very little English and spoke even less. Although I was born in Australia, up until that point I had limited exposure to English because Vietnamese was what we spoke at home.

My parents seemed to feel little anxiety I might be disadvantaged, and assumed I'd just figure it out at school. Turns out they weren't wrong — I learnt English quickly and mastered it well enough that I'm now a writer and editor. However, what they probably didn't anticipate is what would happen to my Vietnamese. 

The typical pattern of immigrant language shift in Australia (and elsewhere) is that the first generation is bilingual, with dominance in the language other than English, and the second generation is bilingual with dominance in English. According to Ingrid Piller, professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University, 'a key driver in generational language shift comes from schooling; through schooling, the state favours one particular language over all others and engineers linguistic homogeneity in a population.'

There are good reasons for the state to drive this agenda, and having English in Australia as our national language has many advantages. But it comes at a cost. One area where we can see this is in our literary culture, which brings this issue into focus.

To apply Abram de Swaan's influential theory of a global language system, the languages of the second generation in Australia are 'peripheral' in that they are 'languages of conversation and narration rather than reading and writing, of memory and remembrance rather than record'.

Our community languages are not necessarily 'peripheral' in the global sense because some of these languages have tens of millions of speakers. However, in an English dominant society like Australia they become peripheral languages that few grow up educated in, with formal schooling options limited. So when writers from the second generation try to incorporate their mother tongues into their writing in English — if they do at all — they may falter.

This was the topic of a conversation I hosted at In Other Words, held on the International Day of Mother Languages last month. One of the writers who spoke was Zarlasht Sawari, a writer and researcher born and raised in Perth. Her mother tongue is Dari, a dialect of Farsi. 'My experience has been one of being locked out of [Dari] because I am basically illiterate in the language,'