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 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.
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.
 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).