Academic journal article Babel

Australia's Linguistic Culture and Its Impact on Languages Education

Academic journal article Babel

Australia's Linguistic Culture and Its Impact on Languages Education

Article excerpt


This article examines, from a broad historical perspective, how Australia's negative 'linguistic culture' has shaped languages education in our country. Language teachers' pre- and inservice training does not often address this topic. Yet to be able to anchor one's profession within a historical, sociocultural, and political perspective, especially for overseas-born teachers who may have little previous knowledge of Australia's past, a knowledge of Australia's linguistic culture is useful to sustain motivation in often adverse language-teaching environments. It helps to understand, view, and value the challenges of languages and cultures education in Australia as an ongoing social, cultural, and political act with a long-term impact reaching far beyond school walls.


Linguistic culture, history of languages and cultures education.


Linguistic culture as the sum of dominant attitudes and values in relation to language and culture issues shapes the social, economic, and political forces that affect a society's approach to languages/cultures education (Schiffman, 1996). These attitudes and values are forged greatly by the common history that a (dominant) people shares. They are embedded in the content of official language policies as well as community attitudes--e.g. the attitudes of school principals, students, and parents--towards language learning. In essence, a linguistic culture provides information on how the dominant ethnic group of a country tends, in Hughes' (1993) terms, 'to navigate difference'.

This article focuses on White Australia's attitudes towards other cultures and languages, and languages education from 1870 (over a century after the official start of European settlement) through to the start of official multiculturalism in the 1970s and up until current times.


Prior to federation in 1901, Australian territory consisted of six separate British colonies. In these early days of British settlement multilingualism was a reality for Aboriginal people (Dixon, 1980) and for the new settlers who had come from various parts of the world (mainly British, German, French, Scandinavian, and Chinese). In some colonies, such as Victoria and South Australia, multilingual traditions were strong with flourishing German-English and French-English bilingual schools and newspapers published in languages other than English (Clyne, 1991). However, between 1872 and 1880, in several colonies, 'education acts', aimed primarily at secularising education--which had hitherto been controlled by the competing interests of several churches--gave multilingualism its first blow by imposing English monolingualism on mainstream schools. Many bilingual schools with a religious affiliation, such as the German Lutheran schools, were forced to become private schools, and generally struggled to survive. From the 1880s onwards, Australia became 'the province of the monolingual speaker' (Clyne, 1991). The use of 'foreign' languages in the community as well as languages other than English from the motherland, such as Gaelic, was discouraged. Aboriginal languages were already disappearing as a result of the systematic ill treatment of Aboriginal communities (Fesl, 1993; Walsh, 1993) who were 'positively discouraged from speaking their ancestral languages and made to feel ashamed of using them in public' (Walsh, 1993). In reference to more recent times, Nicholls (2001) has argued that the 'axing of Indigenous bilingual programs' in 1998 in the Northern Territory was not a historical anomaly, but part of 'the cultural logic of elimination' that has marked Australia since white settlement.


By the end of the 19th century Australia's large Anglo-Celtic community had assumed a dominant sociopolitical role over other settlers of non-British background--including Irish immigrants who, although British subjects, were often dissidents--and languages education in secondary schools mirrored the generally negative attitudes towards 'all languages other than English held by the Anglo-Celtic community. …

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