Language learning in Australia by monolingual English speakers is hardly encouraged while for many descendants of non-English Speaking Background (NESB) immigrants, their knowledge of their parents’ language is declining. However, not only does language allow access to one’s own cultural background or preservation of heritage, learners can also do the same in a smaller world, with other benefits in outlook, creativity, soft skills, business communication and development etc..
Legislating for English
One would argue that this is not a passive organic process. Till the ‘90s multiculturalism and other languages were encouraged e.g. Hamer Liberal conservative government in 1970s Victoria. This was till the Howard government adopted white nationalist or WASP policies creating antipathy towards other languages, banning the word ‘multiculturalism’ in the PM’s Office and promoting English only, influenced by US organisations related to John Tanton, the ‘racist architect of the modern anti-immigration’ movement.
The main organisation was ProEnglish which included Tanton on its Board of Directors, lobbying Washington, and described by SPLC as:
‘Anti-immigrant hate group ProEnglish visits White House. Since 1994, ProEnglish has pushed to have English declared the official language of the United States through legislative means. The latest attempt at the federal level, HR 997, the English Language Unity Act, was introduced in 2017 by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), one of the most outspoken anti-immigrant members of Congress. ProEnglish has also pushed for similar legislation at the state level, where 32 states have some form of official English measures on the books.’
ABC Radio National
By Masako Fukui for Tongue Tied and Fluent on Earshot
Gaby Cara speaks to her nonna in fluent Italian, but only because she spent a year in a Tuscany when she was nine.
“We were in this tiny little village, and because I was so young, I just picked up Italian really quickly,” Gaby says.
For her dad Bruno, a second-generation Italian-Australian, this was a dream come true.
“I always wanted the kids to experience the culture, and to learn the language at a level where they could communicate freely,” he says.
Gaby and her sister Alexia, who was five at the time, attended the local school in picturesque Panzano.
Alexia soaked up the new language “like a sponge”.
“She had a real Tuscan inflection. It was actually beautiful,” Bruno says.
“Roots migration”, or going to the homeland for an immersive cultural and linguistic experience, is how the Cara family managed to buck a rather alarming trend.
Losing your language
Italians are losing their language at a faster rate than any other ethnic group in Australia.
In the last 15 years or so there’s been a drop of around 80,000 people speaking Italian at home.
According to Census data, there were almost 354,000 people who spoke Italian at home in 2001. By 2016, that had fallen to around 272,000.
The Greeks share a similar migration trajectory to the Italians, but “there are some factors that have helped the Greeks maintain their language more,” says Antonia Rubino, senior lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Sydney.
“One is the lack of this distinction between dialect and standard Italian.”
Many post-war Italian migrants spoke dialect as their first language, and often did not pass on Italian to the second generation, Dr Rubino explains.
“The Greeks also had the church,” she says.
The ‘monolingual mindset’?
This attitude is reflected in our education system.
“Australia is one of the most multilingual countries in the world,” says Ken Cruickshank of the University of Sydney.
Yet, language education is not seen as a high priority and “languages are not part of the core curriculum in any state apart from Victoria in the primary schools,” he says.
In fact, he says, “we come lowest of all OECD countries in the provision and uptake of languages”.
The result is that a bilingual child has a five in six chance of losing their heritage language by the time they finish high school, according to Dr Cruickshank.
Or put simply, multilingual kids go to school to become monolingual, in the majority of cases in Australia.
This monolingual mindset is totally out of sync with our multilingual reality — around 300 languages are spoken in Australia on any given day.
There are two ways people can lose the languages they speak.
The first is through linguistic colonisation, which is what’s happened to many Indigenous and minority languages around the world.
The second is linguistic assimilation.
That’s when immigrants lose their languages as they gradually shift towards the dominant language, English — itself a migrant language….
…..And that raises an important question for all of us living in multicultural Australia.
If language is key to people’s cultural identity, doesn’t it make sense that we value our rich multilingualism?
Gaby appreciates how important knowing Italian is.
Her language not only connects her to her nonna, but also gives her an understanding of different cultures.
“When we were younger, we didn’t think anything of going to Italy,” she says.
She’s now 30, and understands that living in Italy as a kid was also about experiencing a different culture, which is why she’s determined to pass Italian on to the next generation.
That would mean that four generations of Caras speak Italian — a small yet significant contribution to countering the image of Australia as a “graveyard of languages.”