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.
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?
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.