What’s going on with Languages in Australia ??

Language proficiency of Australians and its foundations

How has Australia spawned its present stocks of second language knowledge? Bilingual skills, as opposed to bilingualism, which this analysis takes to mean high levels of proficiency in both languages, can be generated ab initio in organizations or transferred through the intimacy networks of child-raising within families and communities. These two sources of second language effort, public and private, should be combined in a ‘joined-up’ process of national language planning.

If Australia were able to articulate the public ‘donation’ of bilingualism offered by minority communities with the focused and instructed language skills produced in public institutions, the nation could generate a widespread, effective and less wasteful distribution of bilingual human capital. Combining the largely untapped resource of community bilingualism with the expertise of education institutions would refine, extend and apply latent bilingual skills to the national repository. Such an approach is both possible and necessary, and is increasingly the focus of language policy in the United States of America through the heritage languages movement (Brinton, Kagan, & Bauckus, 2006) and in Europe through initiatives of the Council of Europe to ‘value all languages equally’ (McPake, 2008).

If we trace the sources of the nation’s bilingual capability today, it is clear that Australia relies principally on the language maintenance activities of its immigrant communities. This is the first of three sources of Australia’s present language competencies; the others are those indigenous communities able to pass on language skills through the family to new generations and Anglophone people who have learnt (foreign) languages. While education and training and especially universities are indispensable for generating high-literate and discipline-based knowledge of language, and along with diverse private providers generate most of the new language competencies in society, overall they contribute relatively little of the total stocks of national bilingual capability.

 The two other repositories of national bilingual skill, Indigenous populations and individuals interested in bilingualism, are far smaller than the bilingual competence encompassed by immigrant Australians. The question arises whether these three population categories, immigrant Australians, Indigenous Australians and individual bilingual Australians, are sufficiently resilient in their language transmission efforts to ensure inter-generational transfer of their language skills. The evidence is generally not favorable.

The largest of the three bilingualism-generating groups is recently arrived immigrants, and some communities of longer standing who have successfully managed to transfer their internal language resources to later generations. However, while some immigrants Australians have low rates of language shift (Clyne & Kipp, 1997, 2002; RUMACCC, 2007), all are experiencing language shift away from first languages, through a transitional stage of bilingualism, to English only. This process of subtractive bilingualism is the universal experience of immigrant populations. Whether more or less rapidly, new Australian communities are all experiencing language loss of their ancestral, heritage or community language. Such communities are located somewhere along a four stage sequence: (i) first language dominance (or monolingualism) in the language other than English; (ii) bilingualism in the community language plus English; (iii) English language dominance with diminished first language competence and use; (iv) English monolingualism. In a perfect model of wastefulness some children, having lost knowledge of the home language, available to the society at no cost to the public purse, are then offered the same language in schools as beginner learners of a taught foreign language. This pattern of language attrition is slower in Australia than in other immigrant receiving countries (Clyne, Hajek, & Kipp, 2008; Fishman, 2001), but appears inexorable. The second bilingualism-generating social category, Indigenous Australians, is perhaps even more heterogeneous than immigrant communities. For Indigenous communities language shift often means language death. This is because local speaker communities are the world’s only speaker communities of the languages concerned. The home transmission system for Australian languages is massively disrupted (Schmidt, 1990; Lo Bianco & Rhydwen, 2001; Walsh, 2005) so that today there is heavy reliance on the public sphere of schools and community services to support any prospects of language retention across generations. The original repertoire of Australian Indigenous languages, some 250–260 containing a dialect range of 600, has been heavily depleted (Dixon, 1980). Despite this, and the clear evidence that first language maintenance reinforces and supports English acquisition, bilingual education in Australian languages is continually subject to challenge and contest (Nakata, 1999; Nicholls, 2001; Simpson, Caffery, & McConvell, 2009).

The third bilingualism-generating social category is the least specifiable. It comprises mainstream, English-speaking Australians, usually individual enthusiasts, language professionals, who through residence abroad, personal motivation or professional occupation have acquired effective competence in non-English languages. While enthusiasm and commitment often accompanies the language skill gained by such individuals, their language capability is often a personal rather than a family accomplishment, diminishing the chances of its effective transmission to their offspring. In any case, these people comprise a numerically small percentage of the population. These three groups are the repositories of second language capability in the population. A far-sighted and pragmatic national language cultivation approach would facilitate interaction among these groups, and connections between home language skills with schools and universities to develop latent bilingualism. This approach should constitute one major strand of the ambitious language education plan that Australia needs in order to enhance its effective interactions with the world, the immediate Asian region and the European-sourced formative cultural traditions of Australian society. The other strand should address the majority of the population, monolingual English speakers. The overriding language planning question here should be how to efficiently stimulate usable second language proficiency in school and university beginner programs.

This dual approach seeks to conserve, develop the latent bilingual capabilities existing in the population and to generate new language knowledge among English-only speakers through formal education.

Community and foreign:

 There are no languages that could realistically be imagined as subjects on the school curriculum which are not present in the Australian population. Despite this the term ‘foreign language’ remains dominant in discussions about language policy. This is because language policy is often based on the idea of teaching monolingual learners the languages spoken in ‘foreign places’.

This is an old-fashioned assumption for an overwhelmingly multicultural country and while this is clearly not true for many learners and many languages, even the presence of the taught language somewhere in the community doesn’t automatically make that language available to learners for interaction and practice. Overcoming this limitation should be a major objective of a pragmatic language policy, given the clear findings from research (e.g., Baetens Beardsmore, 1993) documenting how using a local social context productively in formal teaching programs greatly accelerates both the pace of learning and ultimate proficiency. The ‘community’ presence of a language is therefore important for language pedagogy. Community languages are typically supported by ‘owned’ schools, local clubs and societies, religious and cultural centers. In effect, a community language is one which is available to learners in a setting through its presence in a range of institutional structures that aim to teach, reinforce or transmit the language. This supplies a potential and naturalistic context for the language bringing with it local occupational opportunities, local media in various genres, and local activities of recreational, economic, civic and religious life.

These contexts mean that a community language is associated with a diaspora culture, so that local experiences and expressive norms arise in local settings in which the community language is the exclusive or main linguistic code. By contrast, a foreign language taught in mainstream schools relies overwhelmingly on teacher input and occasional foreign immersion without to mention in detail the proficiency level of many Australian school teachers whom hardly can manage a basic conversation in the foreign language or language other than English (LOTE subjects) that are teaching in schools (excluding native speaking teachers of LOTE subjects ).

There are important pedagogical and sociological repercussions arising from these differences which are taken up throughout this review.

What’s happening in our region?

Our region, the terms ‘the region’ or ‘our region’ have been added to the Australian sociopolitical lexicon in the past 15 years and now function as recurring tropes to mark future national directions and key relationships. What is essentially a vast geographic zone, not naturally linked in particular ways, is increasingly used to mean a geopolitical structure for economic organization, military security and interpersonal relations. These are important for Australia’s emergent identity (Milner, 2002) as much as for immediate interests gradually replacing decades-long anxiety and perceived threat or cultural dissonance.  Today, regional integration enjoys a broadly bipartisan acceptance, ultimately a subset of a global process through which the world is galvanizing into gigantic geographic zones, ‘the regions’.

In Australia teaching ‘regional languages’, once the preserve of small numbers of individual enthusiasts or area specialists is at least rhetorically now perceived as a project of widely endorsed national importance. The prevalence of English in Asia should neither negate or minimize the case for Asian languages if those arguments are premised on educational, cultural and civilization grounds, with the bulk of pragmatic communication training allocated to flexible and rapid delivery niche providers.

In a painstaking examination of the policy effects of ‘Asian language’ teaching in recent years in Australia Yvette Slaughter (2009) has argued that exclusive promotion of Asian languages premised purely on volume of trade figures has the effect of ‘devaluing’ other languages, not only European languages but non-included Asian languages (Hindi, Vietnamese, Filipino and even Indonesian), which in turn ‘devalues’ languages education itself. The education jurisdiction which has most strongly pursued a regionally focused languages policy is Queensland; which today has the lowest proportion of students studying languages, even Asian languages, to school completion in any state (Fotheringham, 2009).

The present argument is in accord with Slaughter’s observations and builds on a previously made case (Lo Bianco, 2005) for a comprehensive and coordinated response to Australia’s language needs. The argument is a response to multiple language interests and motivations, explicitly promoting community (immigrant and indigenous) and foreign (Asian and European) languages, recognizing that it does so in the face of global English and utilitarian tendencies in educational debates. Languages have more in common with each other than their internal category differences suggest. Being classified as ‘Asian’ or ‘European’ actually obscures needs and issues that are particular to individual languages, rather than shared by languages belonging to the same classification. For example, both Greek and Italian share with Chinese the quality of having large numbers of background speakers among their learners, while in most states Japanese has fewer; the obstacles facing a more secure future for Indonesian are unique to that language and are partly influenced by aspects of its relationship with Australia and issues such as travel restrictions on school groups planning to visit, a circumstance not shared by other Asian or European languages. With no doubt a strong presence of ‘Asian languages’ in Australian schools also makes Australian education distinctive, interesting and worldly.  However, one particular language should not be spreading as the most important language that every student has to learn.  The opposite, any language should be put as a important way to learn and link cultures.  Of course, there always will be a small group of languages will dominate the world for different reasons such as: economy, trade, health, fashion, music, gastronomy, etc…but language education in Australia should be orientated to integrate languages instead to dissociated the communities and language educators.

School and post-school effects:

It is instructive to apply a comparative lens to the Australian language policy effort, and its effects, through reference to other English-speaking nations. The two closest comparisons are the United Kingdom and the United States of America with whom Australia appears to share an Anglo-phonic reluctance to become bilingual.

 The British Academy has long expressed concern about the malaise facing foreign languages in UK education. Documenting the decline in language study at the General Certificate of Secondary Education, the academic qualification awarded to 15–16-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, a current British Academy report, Language Matters, notes that ‘[By] 2008, the proportion of pupils taking no language at The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in England had more than doubled, rising to 56%’ (BA, 2009). This fall has occurred since 2001 when language study was made optional for students aged 14 and over. The report notes that this large deterioration over a seven-year period considerably shrinks the base from which higher education is able to recruit students to language study.

The erosion of languages at university and school level, however, has other subtle and less subtle deleterious effects. One of these is evident in the connections between high school language study and indicators of academic potential and persistence.  Languages are one of the few subjects in schooling that are based on obvious sequences of cumulative learning of taught material.  Unlike some other learning areas, progress in languages is highly sequenced, so that conceptual and academic progress is dependent on mastery of specifically prior knowledge essential for each subsequent phase of education.  In this way, languages contribute substance, cohesiveness and perceptible continuity to curriculum. It is possibly for this reason that research increasingly identifies success in school languages study as a predictor of persistence in the independent learning required in higher education, making school language study a kind of high school apprenticeship for university study.

Ongoing results from the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the SAT, in the United States of America shows that students who study a foreign language in serious programs, usually four or more years, regularly outscore other students on the verbal and mathematics portions of the test (Eddy, 1981; Cooper, 1987; Olsen & Brown, 1992; Cooper et al., 2008). A link between school study of languages and university persistence and completion rates was directly assessed by the US National Center for Education Statistics (Horn & Kojaku, 2001).  In this study curricula were divided into three levels of rigour; the findings clearly demonstrated that students in the most ‘rigorous’ high school programs (which included three years of foreign language study) were likely to earn better grades in college and were more likely to complete their tertiary program.

A rigorous curriculum is also associated with substantial increases in total college enrollments and more students opting for four-year rather than two-year college enrollment programs. Some of these relations might not be causal and the extent or direction of causation is no always clear.  Nevertheless, the correlations between academic performance and serious study of foreign languages are multifaceted and persisting. Apparently confident that the indicators are significant, many US universities conduct independent research of relations between high school subject choices, university persistence, completion rates and increasingly specify minimum years of foreign language study for admission, with four years at high school strongly recommended.

To summarize, Australia urges improve and become the great example in leading ‘Language Education’. It should start to aware all citizens the importance in learning a foreign language and giving the right place in Government schools and Higher institutions to involve more students in this field that compromises cultures, linguistics, literature, film, sociolinguistics, translations, interpreting, business/trades, communities, music, gastronomy, etc…

‘Because a Language cannot survive without the support of a vibrant society’.

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About Oriella Escobar :)

Name: Oriella Escobar R. Country: Australia. Interests: Languages, Education, World's cultures, travelling, recipes, friendship, etc. Profession: Language Teacher (French, Spanish and English) Personal Quote: “What we know is a drop of water, what we ignore is the ocean” (Isaac Newton).
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