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:
- 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.
- 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!