In recent Australian political conversation, there is an increasingly bipartisan recognition of the value of cultural and linguistic diversity. So it’s fair to ask, what is Australian society offering those whom it characterises as “diverse”? As far as being multilingual goes, it seems highly skilled, highly educated migrants still experience it as a negative rather than something that is highly valued. Below I briefly discuss the cases of two such women who I interviewed as part of my doctoral research into linguistic intermarriage in Australia.
The wrong accent
“’Scuse the recording but I fuck it up so many times with my accent [laughs] … it’s years after and I still muck it up in terms of accent sometimes.” (Sara)
Sara (all names are pseudonyms) is a trilingual professional from Spain who has worked in Australia for over ten years. Despite her high level proficiency in English, her accent shapes people’s views of her as an exotic foreigner. Sara is well aware of the stereotypes her accent evokes and she talks about using them to her own advantage to connect with people by putting them off their guard and playing up to stereotypes about the European who talks with her hands.
Yet despite all this she still feels that she doesn’t get it right sometimes, and that she should mention this to me in the interview. Why? At what point will she get to “own” English and her way of using it? When does the linguistic privilege of an English speaker rub off on someone who has clearly mastered the language in so many domains?
The wrong language
“It’s my right to speak Chinese mate!” (Jessie)
Jessie is another professional who completed her Masters in Australia, worked in Shanghai for many years for a multinational company and now works in the finance sector in Australia. Like Sara she is a highly balanced bilingual. It is perhaps not surprising then that she was offended when she experienced the kind of policing which is part of linguistic privilege. A colleague in Australia, herself an adult migrant from a non-English speaking background, criticised her for speaking Mandarin socially at work. In fact, she exhorted her to “speak English!”, putting herself in the linguistically privileged position and making Jessie the foreigner who doesn’t know the rules. As Jessie said to me in the interview, it can feel strange or artificial to speak another language with someone you know shares the same linguistic and cultural background as you. Jessie is granted none of the privileges associated with being a “native” English speaker and is a target for criticism for the way she speaks even during her own personal time.
Rather than being a plus, it seems that being a speaker of accented English in Australia is often a minus. Minus linguistic privilege and minus social power, it’s all about what you are not, rather than what you are.
Multilingualism at work
“… and so I just realised I did not want to be the ethnic in the ethnic team, and so I went from that position to the most boring dry … policy officer in the most boring department. Middle-aged white fat women, just because I thought otherwise I’m gonna be always ethnic, ethnic, ethnic.” (Sara)
It is often argued that speaking many languages will lead to better job opportunities. I asked both women about their experience working in Sydney. Had their language skills, particularly their multilingualism, been useful to them? Neither of them found that speaking Spanish or Mandarin had helped them in their careers. In fact, for Sara coming from a language background other than English meant she was stuck in a career pathway which was limited to what she called “ethnic” roles in the public service. For Jessie, speaking Mandarin did help her with customers at a Sydney branch, but that work was largely invisible to her employers. Both women talked about how they got out of roles they felt limited them professionally. Even where multilingualism was useful, as it sometimes is in customer service in a diverse society, this value was not recognized by the organization nor was it remunerated.
Multilingualism at home
“For me I feel like I uh I s-, I don’t have a choice as such that I would like to, Louis to be able to speak Chinese and English or I would like Louis to speak English only, I don’t have a choice because my parents they can’t speak English, so Louis has to speak Chinese otherwise they can’t communicate with Louis and I’m in big trouble then so (laughs).” (Jessie, talking about her son Louis)
It is easy to see why some parents might be ambivalent about the often expressed and casual exhortation to raise their children bilingually when they experience their own linguistic repertoire in such contradictory and often negative ways. Like Jessie, for many parents it may be more about personal relationships than about any notion of global citizenhood that they want to raise their children in two (or more) languages. Even when multilinguals are highly proficient language users and better educated than ninety per cent of qualified Sydney residents (based on Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012), they still experience language anxiety and discrimination on the basis of language. Given that bilingual child rearing is incredibly hard work, and even more so if you are the only parent who speaks that language and you have no institutional support, it may not seem such an obvious proposition.
As long as diversity is seen to be the province of those who are outside the mainstream people like Sara and Jessie will bear the burden of living within the contradictory celebration of diversity on the one hand and the lack of social recognition of the value and experience of multilingualism on the other. This is the double burden of multilingualism in Australia today. However you look at it, it is not as simple as having something that the majority do not. It may be a richer experience of communication, even a more diverse and complex experience of life but it can also be a burden that is no less heavy for being invisible to those who do not share it.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012). “2011 Census of Population and Housing: Basic Community Profile (Catalogue number 2001.0) Sydney (1030) 4063.7 sq Kms.”