Monolingual mindset in the lucky country

National holidays are there to celebrate the nation and the opinion pages tend to be full of self-congratulation on such occasions. Australia is no exception and one of the more over-excited ones that was produced on the occasion of Australia Day last week came from Ross Cameron, a former Liberal (and in Australia that means “conservative”) member of parliament, who got voted out of office in 2004. In the piece, Ross Cameron lists all kinds of facts and factoids as evidence of his claim that Australia is “the country that won the lottery.” It is the following of these “facts” that caught my attention:

Elsewhere, accents fractionate people into place of origin but there is no change in inflection among the Australian-born from Perth to Parramatta.

As one of the comments on the Sydney Morning Herald website, where the piece appeared, says: “You should get out more. This is patently wrong.” It is patently wrong on two levels:

  1. There is heaps of linguistic variation among the English-speaking Australian-born: in terms of region, class, age, ethnicity and gender, to name the most-researched. A good place to start learning about variation in Australian English is the Australian Voices website at Macquarie University; and there’s of course always Barbara Horvath’s 1985 classic Variation in Australian English: The Sociolects of Sydney.
  2. English is not the only language of the Australian-born: according to the 2006 Census, 21% of Australians speak a language other than English at home; in metropolitan Sydney, where Ross Cameron lives, 29% of the population speak a language other than English at home. While many of these will be first-generation migrants – a group the author willy-nilly excludes from the nation – many are also “Australian-born.”

If Ross Cameron had just got the linguistic facts wrong, that would be bad enough but I probably couldn’t be bothered to blog about his piece. What interests me more is the language ideology behind the falsehood: supposed linguistic uniformity appears in a list of the things that are wonderful about Australia. Australia is great because it’s monolingual?! Huh??? I find it hard to follow that reasoning. Sure, there is the Tower of Babel myth but our thinking about unity in diversity has shifted a bit in the past 3,000 years …

Australia is a multicultural and multilingual society. However, while we celebrate the former, we ignore or denigrate the latter. While we are proud of the diversity in cuisines that are available in our cities and the diversity in the dance and music performances we can put on on Harmony Day, the evident linguistic diversity is either willfully ignored as in Ross Cameron’s case, or treated as a cause for public concern. Michael Clyne has coined the terms “monolingual mindset” and “aggressive monolingualism” to describe these Australian linguistic attitudes.

As it is, linguistic uniformity is not a cause for celebration but one for lament! The monolingual mindset is hurting Australia as a recent report by the Australian Academy of the Humanities shows. The Communiqué of the National Languages Summit blames “complacent and aggressive monolingualism” for “our national deficit in language capability, […] Australia’s great unrecognised skills shortage – and the one most directly relevant to our competitiveness, security, prosperity and social harmony in an increasingly global environment.”

When Donald Horne coined “the lucky country” as an epithet for Australia in 1964, he used it ironically to mean that Australia had become prosperous through the good fortune of its natural resources; a fact that had made Australians lazy and complacent in Horne’s view. Almost 50 years on, and we still get a politician opining in the Sydney Morning Herald that to be monolingual and linguistically uniform is the smart way to go about being a nation in the 21st century … lucky country, indeed! Clyne, Michael (2005). Australia’s Language Potential UNSW Press

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
  • Britta Schneider

    Indeed, a very strange assumption, Australia as a monolingual country… As a non-Australian, I was actually struck by the importance that is given to dialectal differences, even within geographical spaces as small as one city.
    At my first night in Australia, my (Anglo-Australian male middle class) flatmate warned me not to speak English like the “Westies”. For him, dialectal diversity starts at the border between central Sydney and the Western suburbs. The subtleness of linguistic differences do not make them less meaningful, and of course, I found it interesting to learn that the number of non-Anglo migrants is higher in the West of Sydney, too.

  • Emily Farrell

    The mismatch between the number of people speaking other languages in the home in Sydney and the lack of stress on language learning is really quite striking. For instance, the Government proudly proclaims “More than 14 per cent of all students in Year 12 … study tertiary-accredited foreign languages.” ( 14 percent!! Time for policy change.

    A note on ‘Westies’: the derogatory term is in particular a designator of socio-economic status (linked to Sydney regional area by way of the division of class), more so than ethnicity (though perhaps at this point in time an intersection of the two?). It’s usually linked to a broad Australian accent, rather than what used to be called (no joke) “Educated Australian”. Britta, my guess would be that your flatmate’s desire for you not to speak like a ‘Westie’ is primarily class-based prejudice.

  • xiaoxiao

    I wonder how popualr this monolingual minset is in Australia. But we do see the previlege the English language enjoys not only in Australia but in other multicultural nations such as the USA and Canada where the official language is undoubtedly English. For the past six years, we have also witnessed the increasing popularity of Chinese outside of China itself. One supporting evidence can be the thriving Confucius schools (“Since 2004, a total of 260 Confucius schools have been established in 60 countries in the world” see But we are very aware of the fact that many people learn Chinese because they need that in work or they want to get an edge over their rivals in job hunting. The fact that a lot of American and Australian children are now learning Chinese won’t challenge the dominance of English in their lives. I’m sure this is the same case with the other minor languages. So I wonder if it is human nature that we feel more comfortable with unity instead of diversity even though the two can coexist in perfect harmony. Monolingualism, however, is not a sound expression of unity in this globalzing world.

  • Every two miles the water changes, and every four miles the speech.( North Indian Proverb)

    when Bangladesh was an Eastern Province of Pakistan, its population was dominantly Bangla-Speaking. The Western Province (present-day Pakistan) had all the political power. The state choose Urdu as the national language of the country and made it compulsory for all to learn and speak in all official matters of the country regardless of the huge linguistic and cultural diversity this country had. This linguistic imposition was celebrated in the name of nation-building. People were made to believe, and still today, that nation means sharing one common language and that all good nations of the world love their national languages.

    People reacted against it in Eastern Pakistan in 1970s. They wanted to have their language acknowledged, supported and respected by the state but it did not happen. People in power shut up their eyes and ears to the linguistic variations in the country and stuck to a policy that gave space to Urdu and English in Pakistan only. Millions of people lost their lives in the civil war of the 70s which resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

    The irony is that the state still ignores the linguistic diversity and has not been able to come out of “monolingual mindset”

    Whose ideology is it and to whom does it give privilege and to whom does it marginalize?