Bilingual Lessons From Australia

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James Crawford, a Washington-based journalist with a special interest in the politics of language, particularly as reflected in U.S. bilingual-education policies, has two new books on the subject. The first, Language Loyalties, is an anthology subtitled "A Source Book on the Official English Controversy.'' The second, excerpted below, is Hold Your Tongue, a broad-scale exploration of "the relationship between our common tongue and our national identity'':

Not all nations regard language diversity as an unmitigated curse. In casting about for international analogies, Americans might consider Australia, a country whose linguistic heritage and makeup are quite similar to our own, but whose policy responses provide an instructive contrast.

English is indisputably dominant, the de facto (but unofficial) national language, spoken as a native tongue by 83 percent of Australians, who, like Americans, are notorious for their monolingualism. But numerous Asian and European languages are also represented, thanks to levels of immigration considerably higher than our own. Melbourne is now the third-largest Greek-speaking city in the world. There are also sizable pockets of Italian, Serbo-Croatian, German, Dutch, Chinese, Polish, Maltese, Spanish, French, and Vietnamese. Meanwhile about 150 indigenous tongues are still spoken, although many are threatened; about 50 remain viable among Aborigines.

As in the United States, language barriers create practical headaches for schools, courts, and social-service agencies; illiteracy is a particular problem. Traditionally, speaking a language other than English has been viewed as a handicap rather than a skill to be valued. Opportunities for maintaining minority cultures have been limited until recently, and language loss is common among immigrant as well as indigenous minorities.

The major difference is that Australia has no second language as pervasive as Spanish in the United States. This may help to explain the striking difference in attitudes toward bilingualism. Rather than organizing English Only campaigns, Anglo-Australians tend to support, or at least accept, the idea of minority-language maintenance. So government has been free to take a dispassionate, no-nonsense approach to language planning. It has funded developmental bilingual education, for example, without provoking conflicts over melting pots and salad bowls. A state-run television network has been set aside for multilingual programming, along with public-radio stations that broadcast in more than 50 languages. Most significant, in 1987 Australia adopted a comprehensive National Policy on Languages, a model of linguistic pluralism that the United States would do well to study.

Briefly stated, the policy's principal aim is "to ensure that Australia derives maximum benefit from its rich linguistic resources.'' The idea is not only to cope with diversity, but to exploit it on behalf of national objectives in external relations and trade, political communication, and cultural expression. The policy incorporates four "guiding principles'':

  • Competence in English for all Australians;
  • A language other than English for all, either through the maintenance of existing skills or opportunities for Anglo-Australians to learn a second language;
  • Conservation of languages spoken by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders; and
  • Equitable and widespread services in languages other than English, including interpreters, libraries, and media.

So far the major impact has been to increase support for language education of all kinds. New programs have been created, or existing ones expanded, in adult literacy, English as a second language, Asian studies, bilingual and multicultural schooling for immigrants, Aboriginal language revival, and foreign-language instruction. In elementary and secondary programs, special emphasis has been given to nine "languages of wider learning''--Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Greek, Indonesian/Malay, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish--deemed vital to "Australia's domestic and external needs.''

Without introducing any new requirements for Australian students--indeed, there are no mandatory features of any kind--the policy promotes individual bilingualism as a national asset. It argues that depending on English alone is shortsighted in a competitive world. With its Pacific Rim location, Australia enjoys advantages in attracting Asian business and tourism, but only if it can overcome cultural barriers. Moreover, Australia needs diplomats trained in "languages of world significance.'' One obvious solution to both problems is to tap the resources of immigrant communities.

Besides the cultural and intellectual opportunities afforded by proficiency in more than one language, the policy emphasizes the goals of "social justice and overcoming disadvantages.'' Immigrant and Aboriginal children experience acute educational problems--not unlike those of their U.S. counterparts--because of limited English proficiency and the erosion of native-language skills. Australia is responding with additive bilingual education, designed to provide access to the English mainstream while conserving and developing other tongues. For Aborigines in particular, the policy recognizes that social equality cannot be achieved through cultural genocide, that indigenous languages deserve protection because they are "central to individual and group identity.''

Clearly, decades of neglecting minority tongues will not be remedied overnight. Despite notable achievements since 1987--in language-learning opportunities, expanded enrollments, professional training and research, and Aboriginal programs--the practical effects of the new policy are only beginning to be felt. Many Australians remain unaware of its existence. Thus far, as might be expected, efforts have largely involved language educators, ethnic advocates, and government bureaucrats. Yet the policy represents an important intervention by government: a comprehensive approach that balances majority and minority interests, while relying on consensus rather than coercion to influence behavior.

From Hold Your Tongue, by James Crawford. Copyright 1992 by James Crawford. Reprinted by permission of Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Vol. 12, Issue 05

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