The ideology of monolingualism in the Australian context

Posted by Maïa Ponsonnet on March 26, 2011

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By Maïa Ponsonnet, Doctor in Philosophy, adjunct researcher at CREDO (Centre de recherche et de documentation sur l’Océanie, CNRS, Marseille), and PhD Scholar in the Linguistics Department of the Australian National University, Canberra. Maïa Ponsonnet has been working with the Dalabon community, in the Northern Territory of Australia, on the documentation of the Dalabon and Kriol languages in particular, since 1998.
Which languages will Maggie Tukumba's great-grand daughter learn when she gets older?

Which languages will Maggie Tukumba's great-grand daughter learn when she gets older?

Last week, we described the Australian linguistic context prior to colonisation, and the situation of Indigenous Australian languages nowadays. This week, we will question the role of language ideologies in Australia, focusing on the contrast between past and contemporary monolingualism.

A drastic contrast

In contrast with the Aboriginal tradition, many Australians live in a mainly monolingual environment, and it is common to hear Australian linguists criticize Australians’ blind monolingualism, i.e. the lack of awareness of their compatriots about linguistic diversity, what it means to speak another language, to be bilingual, etc.

Of course, such a broad complaint runs the trivial risk of turning into exaggerated stigmatisation – or, in a more benign fashion, into a local joke (see photo). The reality is that a large number of Australians, coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, India, … also have their own ethnic background and speak one or several languages other than English.

For many others, however, especially those who cannot afford to travel overseas regularly, exposure to foreign languages remains exceptional. Besides, as native speakers of English, Australians experience no practical need to learn another language. Exposure to Aboriginal languages is insignificant; ethnic languages mostly remain a private affair. And one is forced to admit that the Australian Government has sometimes fallen short of understanding the nature and mechanisms of multilingualism, in particular the tradition of multilingualism of Indigenous Australian groups.

An ironic poster in the linguists’ corner of the Australian National University. Photo: Julia C. Miller

An ironic poster in the linguists’ corner of the Australian National University. Photo: Julia C. Miller

The “First Four Hours Policy”

In 2008, the Labor Governement of the Northern Territory of Australia, with the support of Kevin Rudd’s Labor Federal Government, ruled that in every school of the Northern Territory, the first four hours of each day’s classes should be delivered in English. This became known as the “First Four Hours Policy”.

Such a policy would have effectively scrapped the bilingual programs that had been in place in a number of Aboriginal communities since the seventies. In practise, local languages were confined to one and a half hour in the afternoon – that is, to nothing. This policy is now an episode in history, since in early 2011 the Northern Territory Government discretely stepped back. Nonetheless, the “Bilingual Education” affair remains an important episode, since it triggered revealing debates.

Ideology in question

One of the main official arguments against bilingual education claimed that bilingual schools obtained poorer results – in other words, using two languages was presented as a source of confusion for students.Another important, deeply ideological argument emphasized that Aboriginal children should be given a chance to learn English – with the implicit assumption that a child cannot learn two languages at a time.

Both arguments reflected the lack of exposure to, and understanding of multilingualism as a core, deeply rooted cultural practise in Australian Indigenous communities.

On the other hand, loud and persistent protests by Indigenous community members, teachers, linguists, Indigenous activists and others, demonstrated that not all Australians ignore the nature, value and cultural relevance of multilingualism.

The outcome of the debate and the long-lasting existence of bilingual programs in a number of Aboriginal communities show that Australian Governments, in spite of their “monolingualist ideologies”, can perceive and accept a certain level of cultural specificity in this respect.

Nevertheless, in the Australian (post-)colonial context, it is hard to preserve multilingualism, even for these communities which relied heavily on linguistic diversity prior to invasion.

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