Should multiculturalism be seen but not heard? (Source:

Multiculturalism in Australia: Should it be seen but not heard? (Source:

Australia has embraced multiculturalism as official national policy since the 1970s. Interestingly, the most recent incarnation of the policy, called  ‘The People of Australia’ embraces multiculturalism without embracing multilingualism. In this post I want to explore what it means to celebrate multiculturalism and Australia’s cultural diversity without equally embracing multilingualism.

I will begin by sharing two experiences from multicultural events I recently attended.‎

Vignette 1

In September, I attended the 2012 Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Student Achievement (Community Language Schools). The award is intended to celebrate and honour the achievements of students studying in a community school in NSW. The ceremony was very special for me and my family because my daughter was one of 130 awardees for her achievements in Persian.

The awardees and their families came from a wide variety of linguistic backgrounds and I am sure all felt as pleased as we did that our efforts were being recognized. Maintaining a minority language involves a lot of effort not only on the part of the student but also of the extended family: we give up our Saturdays and travel long distances just so that our children can study their heritage language. The recognition of these efforts and sacrifices was going to be a joyous event!

However, this sense of gratification was marred by an exclusively monolingual ceremony! No one had bothered to bear in mind that the extended families of a group of heritage language learners might not enjoy an English-only ceremony. A number of uncomfortable moments resulted. For instance, the audience was specifically asked, in English, to hold their applause until the end. In view of the fact that there were 130 awardees, that request was perfectly reasonable except that not all of the enthusiastic grandparents from various backgrounds understood the English-Only code of behaviour. The result was an atmosphere of discomfiture resulting from discordant applauding here and there after individual children were called. There were visible nudges and sidelong looks at those who didn’t comply, presumably because they had not understood.

If non-English speakers are made to feel inadequate and judged at an event specifically designed to celebrate linguistic diversity, what does that say about the general value of linguistic diversity in this country?

Vignette 2

The 2012 Minister’s Awards for Excellence in Student Achievement (Community Language Schools) was not the first time that I experienced this sense of cynicism in multicultural but monolingual events. During a government-sponsored public forum to discuss issues faced by migrant families English was the only medium of communication, too. It was excruciating for me to watch one of the panelists, a second-generation family counselor, who was visibly embarrassed when her father was called from among the audience by the host to share his migration experiences. It seemed that host had not been aware that the old man’s English was limited because when he started to speak in halting but comprehensible English she was visibly annoyed. It was then painful to see how the host cunningly interrupted the speaker and took away the microphone in mid-turn!

Multiculturalism without multilingualism

The indirect message of both these multicultural events is that the languages of Australia’s non-English-speaking population are unworthy of attention and unintelligible. The message is clear: Australia may be multicultural but it is not multilingual. English is the one and only language of our multicultural society.

Indeed, so powerful is this message that even speakers from non-English-speaking backgrounds look down upon their less proficient peers. Instead of creating multilingual spaces we demand that everyone assimilate to one language. As my examples demonstrate a multicultural event without multilingualism is inclusive in name and on the level of rhetoric only. Without an embrace of multilingual practices, our multiculturalism is bound to remain an exclusive one.

Author Shiva Motaghi Tabari

Dr. Shiva Motaghi-Tabari received her PhD in Linguistics from Macquarie University, where she is now an Honorary Postdoctoral Associate. Her PhD research focused on the intersection of parental and child language learning in migration contexts. She also holds an MA in Crosscultural Communication from the University of Sydney. Her research interests include intercultural communication, family and bilingual education and migration studies.

More posts by Shiva Motaghi Tabari
  • Very interesting. I think a big problem is that many people see English as an easy-to-learn language. Native English speakers don’t realise how hard it is to learn English especially if you have arrived in Australia as an adult. I suppose many still assume that if a person doesn’t speak fluent English with a good pronunciation it is because that person has made no effort. Unfortunately I see many comments from non-English speakers who boast that they have learnt English very easily. Often they do make mistakes, but they don’t realise that they don’t speak English as well as they think they do.

  • Caroline

    Thanks for a very interesting post, Shiva. I was also at the 2012 Minister’s Awards but have a slightly different view to yours.
    Firstly, it wasn’t an “exclusively monolingual ceremony” as the ten Minister’s Award recipients all conducted their MC duties in their community language with an English translation projected behind them.
    Secondly, I felt that any audience members applauding out of turn did so out of sheer enthusiasm rather than lack of understanding. It would be a shame if this is what earned them disapproving looks.

  • Pingback: Multiculturalism and multilingualism | mairead hannan()

  • Perhaps it is a strained analogy, but a largely monolingual celebration of multiculturalism makes me think of the many German fests held here in the U.S. where there is little to no presence or use of German and the whole German culture is reduced to cheesy music, beer, lederhosen, and greasy bratwurst.

    Once language is stripped away by monolingual ideology & th logic of assimilation, there’s not much left that I identify with in terms of German culture, at least in terms of how it’s (mis)represented in mainstream American cultural settings.

    More broadly, the debate about culture and language, and how significant language is, or allegedly is not, to culture, will go on.

    To those — and they are many, including many scholars — who critique those who, like myself, insist upon the significance of language to culture for allegedly being “reductive,” I challenge you to: a) establish exactly what specific component parts of culture matter/are important, and which are not, and why/why not; b) answer the key power question of whose criteria such valuations will/ought to be be made based on what criteria with what implications for whom.

    In fact, these are exactly the type of issues critics of the language “reductionists” wholly (perhaps willfully?) ignore. Finally, another challenge: Would a completely monolingual world (with English the likely candidate) be as culturally diverse as one with 7,000 languages – what’s your answer, critics of us so-called language “reductionists?

  • Shiva

    Caroline, thank you so much for your good comments! You’re right and I agree that it wasn’t an exclusively monolingual ‎ceremony. Of course (as it was expected) nice texts in different languages had been prepared to be performed on stage; however, my impression was that it was taken for ‎granted that everyone knew (or should have known) English and so all the ‎housekeeping announcements, for example, were solely uttered in English! I should mention that, in fact, I ‎realised this when I first saw right in front of me, a young member of a family nudging her elder ‎‎(probably her mother) for clapping not in the right time and then murmuring something to her ‎‎(probably explaining the situation?) This drew my attention and made me curious to have a closer ‎look around, noticing other instances of the same kind -other than those who probably couldn’t ‎control their excitement!‎

    • Dear Shiva, thank you for your comments. The 2012 Minister’s Awards were given to over 250 students from 38 different languages (Arabic, Armenian, Assyrian, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Cantonese , Croatian, Czech, Filipino, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Macedonian, Maltese, Nepali, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Sanskrit, Serbian, Sinhala, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese) It is impossible to give all announcements in all the different languages present and would make this event rather lengthy. It is difficult to keep it fair to everyone. If anybody has any suggestions about this, I am happy to pass it on to the organisers. Sabine

      • Hanna,
        While you are correct that it’s difficult to please everyone, it does not necessarily follow that because it’s difficult to meet all minority (language) needs and desires that the default position must be to cater (mostly) only to the needs/desires/wants of the (language) majority.

        The argument that there are too many different needs/wants to cater to therefore we’ll (mostly) cater to only one is so common — I see my graduate students make it all the time when we discuss issues such as language education and medium of instruction in a seminar I teach at the U. of Denver in the USA on language, power and globalization.

        And why not: This argument allows members of the dominant group to invoke singular, and decidedly exclusive, majority (linguistic) rules in the name of being “fair”. In fact, this approach is only fair in the sense that this logic ensures that all minority groups are treated equally unfairly, ironically in the name of “fairness.”

  • Hanna Torsh

    I think this post raises a really important point, which is that if ‘mulitculturalism’ is part of an official nationalist discourse then it is neccessary to critique just how multicultural it can really be when languages are no longer included in the concept. Australian government discourse on multiculturalism, including language policy, has shifted away from multilingualism as a core aspect, to one in which English is painted as a unifying language which cuts across difference. The problem with this notion is that it marginalises those for whom English language learning is not possible, easy or really neccessary and makes their struggle for acceptance as equal citizens invisible. Yes English is important, if you are young, able, have a high level of education etc etc. But what about those for whom language learning is made extremely difficult by disability or lack or education due to circumstances beyond their control (war springs to mind)? What about my neighbour, a eighty year old woman who has raised her five children in Australia, has an extensive support network and doesn’t speak much English let alone read or write it? In the model of monolingual multiculturalism all her achievements as a successful migrant who has contributed much to the community and country are rendered invisible and she is simply a non-English speaker who would not have understood ninety nine percent of either of the two ‘multicultural’ public events described above.

    • Agi Bodis

      Hi Hanna, I see the problem not as shifting away from multiculturalism to English as a unifying language but instead not shifting towards multiculturalism – or at least on the level of social practice that’s for sure otherwise your neighbour and the people accidentally clapping at the Minister’s Award wouldn’t be invisible. I am not sure how multiculturalism could fit into Australian nationalist discourse though (even if there is great flexibility in nationalism and it doesn’t necessarily refer to border protection and opposing foreign investment only), did you perhaps mean national?