Every so often, the lack of language education in Australian high schools becomes a topic of acute but peripheral political debate, before quickly submerging again. At the moment we’re right in the middle of a trough of that cycle, but a couple of weeks ago, Julie Bishop announced her personal ambition to have Asian languages compulsorily taught in school. If all goes well for her (and that’s a huge if), this will be a Coalition policy by the next election.

Having at least some Asian languages on offer in high school education makes complete sense from a geopolitical perspective. Making Asian language lessons mandatory however, might be a bit more sticky with the electorate, particularly more conservative voters. Although having said that, it’s currently compulsory for primary school children to learn a foreign language, and neither the kids nor their parents have any say over what language it is. Perhaps it’s because it’s often French or Italian as opposed to, say, Korean or Hmong, that we don’t mind so much.

The story was covered only by News.com.au it would appear, although there are 260 comments on the article. So clearly this kind of suggestion generates a lot of discussion. The comments, not that I could be bothered reading each one of course, seem to group into a few categories.

Firstly there’s the “great idea” camp — not exactly a majority; then there’s the “mandatory anything is indefensible”, there are plenty of those; and finally, the very large and very broad category which believes that:

a) Australia is an English speaking country, therefore
b) we should speak English, as should everyone who comes here (and even everyone else as well), and
c) we should make sure our kids speak English better, because they’re clearly failing miserably at that these days.

A couple of the choicest cuts:

“what happened to other nationalities learning our language? LAST TIME I LOOKED WE LIVED IN AUSTRALIA NOT AUSTRAL ASIA – Lorr of Campsie

“Me speak no good English. Me speak chop chop english. Me naibor speak pidgin english. Good to learn propel Ozie english first. Learn other langage no good, if you not now you mother langage good. Also very good to read and rite propel english first. Western alfabet easy than chinees or japanees or korea karaktes. me say, learn good you mother langage first, then think to learn other langage in high school. – ‘chop chop English’ of Melbourne

Australians generally are monolingual, in fact the English speaking world, with some exceptions, is generally monolingual. This has engendered what is now often referred to as “the monolingual mindset”, which is roughly the belief that monolingualism is the norm and that we should therefore concentrate on teaching English and not waste resources teaching other languages.

The assumption that monolingualism is the norm is erroneous because the majority of people in the world are bilingual at the very least, and very often speak a plurality of languages. Monolingualism, globally speaking, is the exception not the rule. The monolingual mindset moreover, and everything that goes with it, has solidified further in the English-speaking world; we expect people who come here, be they travellers, tourists or immigrants, to speak English, yet we rarely return the favour when we travel to other countries.

This is, in essence, linguistic imperialism and judging by the vast majority of the comments on Bishop’s plan, most of us are happy to be linguistic imperialists as long as it is our language that’s winning.

Peter Fray

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