The report ‘Languages in Crisis’ laments that ‘Australia’s school students spend the least time on second languages of students in all OECD countries’ (The Group of Eight, 2007). To date, the rhetoric surrounding this trend towards monolingualism in a self-proclaimed multicultural country has consisted of impassioned cries that ‘something must be done’ followed by little or ineffective action. The alternate response is the complacent, but pervasive platitude that ‘English is enough’, being inarguably the world’s current lingua franca (Seidlhofer, 2012). It is this ‘monolingual mindset’ that is fuelling the growing attrition of Australia’s bilingual skills (Clyne, 2005).
To analyse the state of LOTE (languages other than English) in Australia it is critical to understand Australia’s linguistic landscape, one in which the majority of bilingual Australians were born outside Australia and have a LOTE mother tongue or are second generation immigrants inheriting the languages of their parents and grandparents. Currently the top 10 languages spoken at home are English, Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindi and Tagalog (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012-2013).
The 2011 Census revealed that about 3.9 million people speak a LOTE at home, 18.2% of the entire population and an increase from 16.2% in 2006 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012-2013). Ostensibly these figures suggest bilingualism to be on an upward trajectory, however this upsurge can be explained by a corresponding increase in immigration. Australia has a regular influx of LOTE speakers, yet the maintenance and importantly the transfer of these languages is minimal, suggesting a potential dearth of bilingual skills in the future.
Reflecting assimilation into Australian culture, the longer first generation Australians have lived in Australia, the less likely they are to speak LOTE at home. 36 per cent of immigrants of the pre-1980 period speak English exclusively at home, while only 12-18 per cent of immigrants from the 1990’s and 2000’s do so (Arunachalam, 2016). This process of ‘subtractive bilingualism’ is characterized by a ‘language shift away from first languages, through a transitional stage of bilingualism, to English only’ (Lo Bianco, 2009). Hence languages originating in countries with greater numbers of immigrants to Australian, such as Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian varieties from Bangladesh and Nepal, are currently well maintained (Arunachalam, 2016). An exception to this decrease in skills as time spent in Australia passes are the earlier post-war Greek and Italian immigrants, who still have relatively high levels of retention stemming from stronger community efforts to maintain language and ties to heritage (Tamis, 2009). However the overall pattern has first-generation Australians slowly tending towards English, and consequently decreasing transfer of LOTE to the next generations. A relatively smaller proportion of 2ndand 3rd plus generation immigrants reported that they speak LOTE at home, 20% and 1.6% respectively, while 53% of their 1st generation counterparts do so (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012-2013). Essentially, the intergenerational transfer of languages from foreign-born Australians to their Australian-born children and grandchildren is weakening.
This trend away from bilingualism is a loss to many Australian’s understanding of their culture and heritage, but from an economic perspective also wastes valuable resources. Australia’s abundance of first language speakers of LOTE, and its complete disuse of these available resources, are somewhat paradoxical (Clyne, 2005). Current multilingual skills are in atrophy, squandering many valuable avenues, which might foster bilingualism in others.
Obviously you cannot force someone to speak the language of their parents; such a task should be a choice of their own. It is completely valid for Australians to reject or be disinterested in a language of their background, but a glance at the dwindling formal education system reveals that most Australians are rejecting any non-English language.
The collapse in language studies is evidenced by the decline from 40 per cent of year 12 students studying a second language in the 60’s to less than 15 per cent today (The Group of Eight, 2007). In a report issued by the Australian Council for Educational Research, Lo Bianco conceded that ‘the large number of reports and programs represents too much chopping and changing and has served to weaken the place of languages due to continual shifting of priorities and ineffective interventions’. Clearly, the lack of foreign language speakers in Australia has been identified an issue, but little to none effective change has been implemented.
The impact of this heightened tendency towards monolingualism is significant. As bilingual skills is Australia continue to wane, we should appraise the potential benefits of a coordinated and effective revival of languages. Such an effort would directly serve the cultural and intellectual needs of young Australians, while accruing benefit to our nation’s economic and diplomatic endeavours (Clyne, 2005).
Proficiency in multiple languages would enable greater access to overseas markets and make the Australian labour force’s skillset competitive, as English language skills now are considered a ‘basic skill’ internationally (The Group of Eight, 2007). Reliance on translators is sufficient for basic communication, but to market and sell a product requires more accurate marketing and deeper cultural understanding, easily facilitated by communicating with someone in their mother tongue. Similarly sophisticated and confident communication could strengthen diplomatic relations, minimising the impersonal dependence on translators and interpreters (Lo Bianco, 2009). Furthermore, more avenues of communication cultivate dynamism through quicker access to foreign ideas at the critical stages of inception.
In addition to economic effects, there are indications that multilingualism has significant cognitive benefits (Clyne, 2005). Contrary to the popular belief that all resources should be devoted to developing English in young Australians, 60 per cent of students said that studying a language helps with English (The Group of Eight, 2007).
Perhaps the most unfortunate loss as a result of the ‘monolingual mindset’ is the self-imposed cultural and intellectual isolation. By either actively or not refusing to learn other languages, Australians are rejecting the opportunity to understand the nuances of foreign cultures and to communicate on a personal level with non-English first language speakers. Such disconnection arises sheerly due to the fact that people struggle to develop connections with people who don’t speak their mother tongue (The Group of Eight, 2007). If Australians devoted more time to LOTE they might better empathise with the task of foreign language learning that many incoming Australians and visitors experience and validate our reputation as a ‘multicultural, tolerant society that welcomes people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds’ (The Group of Eight, 2007). Cultivating multilingual capacity in Australia will expose people to the many traditions and experiences generated in languages other than English, and widen our knowledge of the world around us (Lo Bianco, 2009). Such exposure can lead to better educated and possibly more compassionate citizens, surely the kind of people we want Australians to be.
Arunachalam, D. &. (2016). Shift in the use of migrant community languages in Australia. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development , 37 (1), 1-22.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012-2013). Cultural Diversity in Australia- Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Migration Australia. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Clyne, M. (2005). Australia’s Language Potential. Sydney: UNSW Press.
Lo Bianco, J. (2009). Second Languages and Australian Schooling.Camberwell: ACER Press.
Seidlhofer, B. (2012). Understanding English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford University Press , 33 (4), 463-465.
Tamis, A. (2009). The Greek language in contact with English in Australia. Études Helléniques , 17 (1), 20-42.
The Group of Eight. (2007). Languages in Crisis: A Rescue Plan for Australia.Australia: The Group of Eight.