Schools transforming multilinguals into illiterates?

Schools transforming multilinguals into illiterates?

Mehrsprachige Buecher – multilingual books – ketabhaye chand zabane

The release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census of Population data is an invitation to reflect on the composition of society, as the figures make official the realities we have been living since the previous census in 2006. The 2011 census, released in June 2012, reveals that Australia is a strong target of migration, as almost 6 million migrants born in over 200 countries live now in the country. Moreover, Australia has one of the highest proportions of overseas-born residents (27%), third highest behind Singapore (41.5%) and Hong Kong (39%). While migrants from English speaking countries (e.g., UK, New Zealand) are still the largest group of overseas born residents, 19% of the population over 5 years of age speaks languages other than English at home. The Census also shows a shift in the composition of migrants and refugees, with a dramatic increase in African, Middle Eastern and Indian new arrivals.

One of the results of the migration program is the large number of young children for whom English is a second language. While mastery of the English language by migrant children is undoubtedly a crucial aim, it is still to be noted that languages other than English are neglected in the Australian education system. This impacts on second and third generation migrants, as can be seen from high percentages of language attrition rates revealed by the Census (see also Clyne, 2001,  Lo Bianco, 2003).

The lack of institutional support is particularly noteworthy in the area of literacy skills in minority languages. There are very few opportunities, other than classes offered by Community Language Schools in a limited number of languages, for parents wishing to raise their children bilingually, to ensure that their children become literate in their native language(s), or to maintain literacy in the home language if the process of literacy development has been interrupted by migration.

There is ample research that shows that writing is the most fragile skill in linguistic minority situations, as it is not needed in daily life and needs constant use or practice for its maintenance (Clyne et al., 1997,  Oriyama, 2011). Over time, the lack of institutional support results in what has been termed “kitchen” languages, impoverished varieties of community languages that serve mostly oral communication needs around restricted topics. This situation entails a loss of potential economic opportunities for the country as few people develop the advanced language skills required to operate successfully in the international arena. Moreover, insufficient support for home languages deprives children of the recognised educational, social and affective advantages associated with biliteracy (see Bialystok, 2001 for a thorough overview), and can hinder intergenerational cohesion within families and communities.

Paradoxically, given Australia’s dependence on international trade[1] and its often repeated desire to be accepted as part of the Asian Pacific group of nations (e.g., Keating, 2000), the call is made periodically to enhance the role of languages in the curriculum and improve their teaching. However, when it comes to public debate and educational language policy and planning for languages other than English, there is no clear and consistent conceptualisation of how these languages are viewed.

In a classic article, Ruiz (1984) discusses three main policy orientations to language: language as a right, language as a problem, and language as a resource. Although Ruiz was reflecting on the US and Canada, this distinction is pertinent to the Australian context and provides a useful framework for analysis. In Australia, not all language groups have the opportunity to be included in the school curriculum.

When it comes to languages other than English, a clear distinction is made between modern foreign languages, indigenous languages, and migrant/community languages (Lo Bianco, 2003). Only a few “foreign” languages are seen as resources and thus, when it comes to justify the selection of particular languages in the education system, justifications are worded either in relation to the high cultural achievements of the target cultures (e.g., French and German) or to economic and geopolitical national imperatives (e.g., Chinese and Japanese). Most of the languages spoken in Australia however are not seen in this light. Except for the few languages that at different times attracted strong financial support from foreign governments or institutions (e.g., Korean and Italian), ‘migrant/community’ languages are seen as a problem, hindering assimilation into the dominant culture and potentially polarising society. Lo Bianco poignantly summarises the situation noting that in Australia, languages spoken ‘in other countries’ and divorced from daily life are seen as valuable skills. In contrast,

when the languages are less foreign, when emotional attachment and mastery may be high, their study, public use, and maintenance ‘threaten civilisation’. No longer a skill but sedition. (2000: 99).

And Cummins (2005: 586), in a statement that could perfectly apply to Australia, characterises the current situation as a

bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.

Granted, the great diversity of population, and the variety of languages spoken in Australia, as identified in the 2011 Census, make it difficult to address the educational needs of this culturally and linguistically diverse sector of the population. Ideological and practical considerations further complicate the issue as assimilationist policy orientations call into question the value of diverting resources from the mainstream education system into community languages. Even when the political willingness exists, there are obvious limitations in terms of materials, curricula and teaching expertise in such a varied range of languages. This is a challenge that most plurilingual societies would no doubt face.

In order to explore strategies to develop and promote literacy and discuss the cost of illiteracy in home Languages we are organising a workshop titled ‘Multilingualism and Literacy’ to be held at the 19th International Congress of Linguists in Geneva, 21-27 July 2013. The workshop description and call for papers – still open until 15 August 2012 – are available here.

The organizers, Susana Eisenchlas, Diana Guillemin and Andrea Schalley, hope that the workshop will generate a much needed debate.


This post was co-authored by Susana Eisenchlas, Diana Guillemin and Andrea Schalley.


Bialystok, E. 2001. Bilingualism in Development: Language, Literacy, and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clyne, M., Fernandez, S., Chen, I.M., and Summo-O’Connell, R. 1997. Background Speakers: Diversity and its Management in LOTE Programs. ACT: Language Australia.

Clyne, M. 2001. Can the shift from immigrant languages be reversed in Australia? In Can Threatened Languages be Saved? Reversing Language Shift Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective, ed. J. A. Fishman, 364-391. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. 2005. A Proposal for Action: Strategies for Recognizing Heritage Language Competence as a Learning Resource within the Mainstream Classroom. The Modern Language Journal 89:585-592.

Keating, P.J. 2000. Engagement: Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific. Sydney: Macmillan.

Lo Bianco, J. 2000. Multiliteracies and multilingualism. In Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, eds. B. Cope and M. Kalantzis, 92-105. South Yarra: Macmillan.

Lo Bianco, J. 2003. A site for debate, negotiation and contest of national identity: Language policy in Australia. In Guide for the development of language education policies in Europe: From linguistic diversity to plurilingual education. Strasbourg: Language Policy Division DG IV – Directorate of School, Out-of-School and Higher Education Council of Europe.

Oriyama, K. 2011. The effects of the sociocultural context on heritage language literacy: Japanese-English bilingual children in Sydney. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 14:653-681.

Ruiz, R. 1984. Orientations in language planning. NABE Journal 8:15-34.


[1] According to current Minister for Trade, Dr Craig Emerson MP, in 2010 “Australian exports generated more than 20 per cent of Australia’s gross domestic product. Both exports and imports create employment: one in five Australian jobs is related to trade and expanding our international trade will help secure a high-skill, high-wage future” (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2011).

Author Susana Eisenchlas

Susana Eisenchlas is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Griffith University. Her research expertise is in first and second language acquisition, comparative syntax, generative grammar, cross-cultural communication, and language and gender. Her profile is available at

More posts by Susana Eisenchlas
  • Rosemary Kuwahata

    Some high schools in QLD have (an) immersion programme(s), which teach basic subjects in the ‘foreign language’, French or Japanese for example. I don’t know how well they work or how well the students enrolled in those programmes cope with the same subjects in English.
    An acquaintance of mine who is Japanese and married to an Indonesian man, enrolled their daughter at a certain high school specifically because it was starting up a ‘Japanese Emersion Programme’ and after 5 years at the school, although not bilingual, she is proficient enough to function comfortably in Japanese.
    I have 4 Australian/Japanese children and their education has been quite varied. Various mixtures of place of birth and early development /schooling settings, later schooling / university settings and opportunities for language learning and practice (at Australian schools/universities and the weekend Japanese Language School) and visits to Japan have lead to surprising results in their current language capabilities and their interests.

  • Rosemary Kuwahata

    Do I dare mention that 2 of my children obtained OP 1 score on the QTAC scale for determining eligibility for University entry?

  • Khan

    An excellent post indeed. While the institutional support to a selected set of languages have its roots in the history, politics and socio-economic conditions of the people whose languages gets such supports as your post nicely brings out, I think it is equally important to focus at the differnt layers of institutions and the complex ways in which social actors occupying differnent positions in the institutional and social hiearchy respond to policy in their everyday institutional lives. In my study in Pakistan, those who raise the voice of nationalism, national language or local languages are the ones who have control over the valuable linguistic resources. They are the this segment of the society in Pakistan which can be called full bilingual and biliterate. Taking Ruiz vocabulary, they create languages as problems for others and for themselves, languages as resource.

  • An additional layer of complexity is added by the fact that the substantial overlap between “foreign language” and “community language” is either not recognized or only seen as a problem. Some of the most frequently taught “foreign languages” (Chinese, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean) are also major “community languages.” However, instead of recognizing this fact as an opportunity, it is widely seen as a problem. Most heritage speakers end up being better off choosing another language or no language at all, than pursuing their heritage language through mainstream schooling.

    While there are very few provisions for community language speakers to pursue their languages through mainstream schooling, they are being treated differently when it comes to assessment. Michael Clyne (2005) has a thorough discussion of rationales, problems and inequities in Australia’s Language Potential (pp. 109ff.).

    The national curriculum is set to follow that model and to also consider heritage speakers as having “an unfair advantage” over non-heritage learners when it comes to assessment. Currently, implemented only in NSW, what is particularly noteworthy about differential assessment is that it is employed only with reference to four Asian languages (Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean) (see NSW Board of Studies). The Sydney Saturday School of Japanese has repeatedly pointed out the fact that this is clearly disciminatory (e.g., this newsletter or this petition).

  • Michael

    very illuminative article! i have made some similar experiences in Berlin.

  • Pingback: Australia’s Asia Literacy Debate | Language on the Move()

  • Gloria Christabel

    I come from a multilingual country or nation and on the outside, this is regarded as an admirable attribute. What many do not know is, of the four languages that I speak, the English Language is the only one that I’m fluent in, in speaking and writing. Looking back on it now, I realize that the reason why my proficiency in the other three languages, Malay, Tamil and Malayalam are not on par with the English Language, is that they were not given the due attention and importance they deserved. While I learned Malay in school, as it is the national language, once I got into college, Malay was regarded as extremely unimportant in comparison to the English Language. The same thing happened when I went into university to pursue my Bachelor’s degree. It was the same unrelenting cycle. Today, while I can speak the “kitchen” version of the language, as mentioned in the article, I find it very challenging to speak and write in formal or the standard Malay language. There were never any Malay language classes included in the curriculum and that definitely took a toll on my command of the language. Today, the language is possibly on the brink of death, as it’s only being survived by Malaysia and even in Malaysia, it has taken a back seat. I’m not discounting the importance of the English Language in the world today, but it is sad to see such disregard for the language of the country that I grew up in.

  • Thank you for your comment! You might enjoy reading a recent Macquarie PhD thesis about Burmese migrant students in China. Among other things, the researcher, Li Jia, found that the students (who were mostly ethnic Chinese) had been socialized into believing that Burmese was useless. However, in China they actually discovered that the best job opportunities for them were available if they were proficient in Chinese AND Burmese because they could be employed as intercultural mediators.
    The thesis is available for open access from

    Li, Jia. 2017. Social reproduction and migrant education: A critical sociolinguistic ethnography of Burmese students’ learning experiences at a border high school in China. Macquarie University.

    • 000

      Wow. I’ll definitely have a look at it! Thanks so much for recommending this to me!


    Through reading this article, it can be true that formal education may make it difficult that bilingual students maintain their home languages. Especially, bilingual children, who was born in English speaking country, tend to rely on only English. I am currently an assistant teacher at a Japanese community school, seeing some students who are reluctant to speak Japanese and others who like speaking it. I also notice that the gap between these two groups becomes larger as they grow up. Some common factor of students who do not like speaking it are to go to Australian schools and to speak English as home. Maintaining bilingual skills is probably attributed to formal schools and family environment.