Tongue-tied

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Talented Australians expand their horizons by studying in the US and the UK. They adore working in cities like New York and London, and upgrade their skills in public and private sector organisations across the Anglophone world.

But what if it were unexceptional for Australians to study in Hanover or Helsinki, routinely fast-track their careers in Budapest and Buenos Aires, and participate in peer-to-peer exchanges with institutions in Seoul and Stockholm? This cannot happen unless Australians start looking and learning beyond the English language. There is only so far you can go in terms of understanding potential friends, and enemies, without mastering their native language and its nuances. Interpreting the stark and exquisitely woven French dialogue in a Jean-Luc Godard film through subtitles is about as effective as viewing Picasso through sunglasses. Suspicion aroused by listening to Arabic ‘chatter’ poses more pressing questions of understanding in our post-9/11 world.

Most of us agree that all Australians should speak fluent English, and that this aim is a core component of working multiculturalism. Yet we almost completely ignore another more than 200 languages spoken in this country and Australians come from more than 200 birthplaces. Despite the unusual depth and breadth of these linguistic resources at our disposal, Australia’s cultural, educational, political and business experiences are primarily conducted through the medium of the English language. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only around 15 percent of the Australian population speaks a language other than English at home. Worse, there are no signs of up and coming generational change. In Victoria, for example, only eight percent of Year 12 students study a language other than English.

Other Western nations don’t share our blind, dumb spot. Half the population of Europe is bilingual. In the United States of America, 11 per cent of the population speaks Spanish – including George W Bush, a man who proudly boasted he had never been to Europe until he became President in 2000. British Prime Minister Tony Blair famously and fluently addresses French President Jacque Chirac and the French Parliament in their own language.

The opportunities offered by our evolving racial demographics were something that Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser recognised in their pursuit of multicultural policies that were more than skin deep. Their open, pluralistic approach to these matters culminated in the introduction of Paul Keating’s Asian Languages programme for schools in 1995. Keating recognised that speaking the languages – and thereby accessing the culture – of Asia was vital to Australia becoming a genuinely long term member of the region in which we live.

John Howard cancelled that programme in 1999. Was this part of Howard’s strategic backlash against ‘political correctness’ and Keating’s ‘vision thing’? Or was it because multilingualism threatens the vision of ‘one nation’, where language is used to enforce ‘belonging’ in its narrowest sense? Current Howard Government spending on teaching young Australians languages other than English is woefully inadequate. It announced in the 2003 Federal Budget a minute total of $104 million for languages education, out of a total education budget worth $16 billion.

It’s not just our politicians who seem to care little about the opportunities lost to Australians through incompetence in other languages. The Business Council of Australia, an influential group representing the ‘big end of town’ and spending millions of dollars on research and advocacy each year, failed to include language issues in its otherwise admirable 2002 ‘Future Directions’ project. Yet as Tony Liddicoat, president of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations told The Age on October 20 last year: ‘You do need English plus another language to be really competitive in a whole lot of jobs.’

Let’s stop denying the reality and the possibility of what Australia could and should be in the 21st century. Let’s do it not just to make more money, understand art films or enhance the intelligence of our spying and surveillance. Let’s do it to combat the innate conservatism that’s allowed fear politics to get such a tight grip on us in recent years, and which prevents our democracy maturing to embrace overdue constitutional reforms such as a republic. For the capacity to understand other cultures, values and perspectives will bring a greater preparedness to reform our own society — imaginatively, and in ways that will really work for Australia.

It can be done. As Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes recently observed, ‘monolingualism is a curable disease’.

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