As someone who is concerned about Australia’s monolingual mindset and the damage it does to individuals and our society as a whole, I probably should have been pleased to discover this souvenir apron and stove gloves in a Sydney dollar store. As someone who also finds the commercialization of banal nationalism thoroughly irritating, I was, well, irritated. Why would anyone go about cooking draped in the Australian flag?! Personally, I think it shows a lack of respect for the flag but then, maybe, it’s tacky enough to be considered cool.

This particular piece of Australia for sale differs from the myriad of similar items on the market in its multilingualism. The product associates the national flag with the country name in six different languages. The product thus serves to make multilingualism part of the national imagery – a project I should presumably welcome. It’s the trivial and tokenistic nature of the multilingualism on the apron and gloves that irks me. It reminds me of the British woman who recently made headlines for “mastering 25 languages.” If you read the article, it turned out she knows how to say “hello” in 25 languages. The fact that this is considered newsworthy, even if only in a local paper, is evidence that the monolingual mindset is alive and well in other countries, too.

The idea that multilingualism is nothing more than saying “hello” or writing “Australia” in different scripts is a key aspect of the monolingual mindset: it makes it seemingly unnecessary for language learners to invest serious time and effort into language learning, and language education policy gets away with 40 minutes of foreign language learning per week as is the case in NSW primary schools: even after years of study, students can’t do much more than say “hello” in the language they study. Trivializing multilingualism also forms the basis for the myth that migrants don’t want to learn English: if you assume that there is nothing much to language learning, then of course you have to conclude that migrants who are not great language learners are actually willfully refusing to learn English.

Oh, and by the way, writing “Australia” in six different scripts really can’t be a particularly challenging task once you’ve decided that that’s how you want to design your apron and gloves. However, the producer of this product still managed to mess up the Arabic version. Instead of أستراليا the letters are written in the wrong direction so that the Arabic version looks something like “Ailartsua” …

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • OMG – that cracks me up with the Arabic written backwards! Such a common mistake yet sheesh, if you are going to actually print it on something and sell it, get it right! It seems like the very least.

    Thanks for this post!

  • vahid

    The urgency of doing business in the competing economy has left no time for them to even check the Arabic translation/orthography/script although they could have done that by a simple click! There was no need to find Arabic-speaking people around and ask them the right way to write AUSTRALIA in Arabic!|ar|australia

    But, a click?! That was also a distraction! It was time-consuming perhaps!

    This is what was in their mind:

    Let’s design! Let’s print! Let’s distribute! Let’s sell! Let’s make more money!

    Thank you for the nice post.

  • I have to say it’s a very nice photo:-)

    Re an opportunity to learn foreign languages in Australia, I have an interesting observation from my two nephews who grew up on the Gold Coast in Queensland. The younger one, aged 11, was once into learning Italian and used to sing an Italian song which he learned at school. One day he was proudly singing the song in the car on our way to the beach. As an auntie, I was so proud, trying to sing along (quite hopelessly), telling him that I would ask his parents to send him to Italy to study in the future. But his brother, aged 14, and his friend who were also in the car, were relentless in ridiculing the young one, saying “singing is so gay [sic]!”, “Italian is useless”, “stop showing off!” etc etc. Disheartened, I intervened “it’s wonderful he is learning another language!” They looked at me and said, “Everyone in the world speaks English! We can speak English and Japanese and that’s enough”.

    Of course this conversation continued, with me insisting on the value of multilingualism, and the older boys claiming that they don’t need to learn any other languages, until we got to the beach. I liked the fact that the young one KEPT singing: he is always rebellious to his big brother. But it made me sad to see a different version of monolingual mindset – monolingual ideology creeping into the minds of bilingual young children…

  • Yay! Great to know that the US is not the only country out there with banal multilingualism and a monolingual mindset!! Uh! After a while this gets so ridiculous!!

  • lachlan jackson

    Great post!
    Speaking of kids, I recently heard the sad story of a 12-year -old boy growing up in Cairns with his Australian father and Japanese mother. He reportedly refused to speak Japanese with his mother, claiming “Mum, I’m not bloody Japanese!”
    What really upset me was that his father then reportedly walked across the room with a smug grin on his face and gave his son the ‘high-five’. I was gob-smacked!

  • Re Lachlan’s comment

    “Bloody Japanese!” “shoot the Japs!” etc etc are still what you expect to hear repeately in war dramas/movies on TV, particularly in the lead up to 25 April every year in Australia ( I’ve never asked my newphews if they are aware of this, but my sense is they have had plenty of exposure to these anti-Japanese discourses during their 14 and 11 years on the Gold Coast, on and off TV. Born and raised in Australia, they seem to feel not entirely belonging, always feeling different racially and linguistically. Btw, where did you hear the story? In media?

  • steven

    I wonder what the situation is like for kids of mixed culture born in japan? do they not suffer from any kind of ongoing stereotyping?

  • lachlan jackson

    Where did I hear the story? To be honest, I knew the guy when he was in Japan 10 or so years ago. He was back in Japan last month, rang me out of the blue, and asked if had time to meet him for a coffee at the station. So I got the story ‘first hand’ as it were. My opinion of the guy, as you might have guessed, was not enhanced by this reunion.
    I just feel really sorry for his kids, who, I predict, will have to come to terms with their father’s issues down the road.

  • Jonathan

    As suggested by a commenter at Fully (sic), I wouldn’t be so quick to interpret this apron as seeking to “make multilinguilism part of the national imagery”. It seems more likely that it is aimed at tourists – it’s worth remembering that bargain shops in the inner suburbs have had large stocks of overdone souvenirs for a lot longer than the relatively recent resurgence of broader interest in the national flag.

    It’s tacky and mistaken, but what do you expect from souvenirs? In the markets at Fremantle, you can find caps emblazoned “Fremantle, Queensland”!

    On the topic of the identities of kids with Australian fathers and Japanese mothers, I was at high school with such a teenager. I once mentioned that “skips” such as myself had been less than 10% of my primary school population. He reacted quite strongly, implying I should be upset at being a minority in “my own country”. I really couldn’t tell what that said about how he saw his own identity.

  • Kris

    … Die eigentliche intellektuelle Leistung der Australierin, die “Hi!” in 25 Sprachen sagen kann (auf dänisch, schwedisch, finnisch, norwegisch jeweils “hei” in verschiedener Schreibweise, das wären schon mal 4) besteht für die Restaustralier vermutlich darin, daß sie überhaupt in der Lage ist, 25 Sprachen aufzählen zu können 🙂 Das ist schon viel in einem Land, in dem in einer Ratesendung eine Kandidatin die Frage “Wieviel ist neun mal neun?” vom Publikum beantworten lassen mußte (“I was never good at Maths”), von dem immerhin 90% für “einundachtzig” gestimmt hat … gesehen 2002 in der einzigen Kneipe in Rolleston, Queensland. Gegenprobe bei deutschem Publikum wäre auch mal interessant 🙂