25. Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing)

Abstract: The argu­ment I will develop in this essay is that the for­eign stu­dents are a latent human resource who can assist with over­com­ing Eng­lish mono­lin­gual­ism in the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion. For­eign stu­dents, prop­erly rewarded, can be a major source of skills trans­fer. Every one of those stu­dents is a walk­ing com­pendium of lan­guage and cul­tural skills that Aus­tralians need to know.

Nations which have Eng­lish as a dom­i­nant mother tongue are often accused of fool­ish mono­lin­gual­ism. There are pop­u­la­tions in other lan­guages which are also mono­lin­gual for a vari­ety of rea­sons, although mul­ti­lin­gual­ism has been and remains the most com­mon world­wide pat­tern. At this point in his­tory how­ever, Eng­lish mono­lin­gual­ism is espe­cially resis­tant to chal­lenge, and will be at the core of this dis­cus­sion.

Anglo-cul­tures nour­ish a widely accepted social meme which dis­par­ages lan­guage learn­ing. The strong form of this meme is “we can’t learn for­eign lan­guages”, and the weaker vari­ant, “it is a waste of time to learn for­eign lan­guages because every­one speaks Eng­lish”. The sup­port­ing ratio­nale to the weak form of rejec­tion is that “if we need interpreting/translation there are plenty of peo­ple in this coun­try who can do it”.

It is not dif­fi­cult to dis­prove the hope­less “we can’t learn…” atti­tude. How­ever it has proved very dif­fi­cult to chal­lenge the “lan­guage learn­ing is a waste of time” atti­tude, partly because most Anglo-coun­tries now do have large immi­grant pop­u­la­tions which are a use­ful source of lan­guage skills for at least one gen­er­a­tion. The chal­lenge is also dif­fi­cult because “waste of time” in the end is a mea­sure­ment of cul­tural value, and only inci­den­tally a mea­sure of eco­nomic value.

The real impor­tance of revers­ing the mul­ti­lin­gual-immi­grant => mono­lin­gual-descen­dant pat­tern is that human soci­eties are mix­ing and blend­ing at an ever increas­ing rate, whole pop­u­la­tions and pro­fes­sions are world-mobile, yet the sev­eral thou­sand other world lan­guages beside Eng­lish are not going to dis­ap­pear any time soon. For Anglo speak­ers to sim­ply believe that they are immune from lin­guis­tic com­pe­ti­tion in a multi-polar world is delu­sional. They are set­ting them­selves up for the sta­tus of sec­ond-class world cit­i­zens….

Well yes, but you can’t sell argu­ments about tomorrow’s cul­tural tor­na­does to Bruce and Tracey on the street out there. They want it all, here and now, not in never-never land. To shift Anglo speak­ers onto the lan­guage learn­ing esca­la­tor, if it is worth­while, needs a very cun­ning and per­sis­tent mar­ket­ing effort – per­haps even engag­ing the sort of sly tal­ents which have made wash­ing machi­nes, tooth­paste and TVs into “neces­si­ties”. How­ever, cre­at­ing an imag­ined need for tooth­paste is a very sim­ple mar­ket­ing exer­cise com­pared to fos­ter­ing an imag­ined need for amor­phous and mutat­ing mind stuff like lan­guage. This is a home truth mostly not grasped by the present gen­er­a­tion of edu­ca­tional man­agers, let alone their polit­i­cal mas­ters.

At a per­sonal level, day by day, sup­pos­edly needed con­sumer items are bought rather than sold. Regard­less of how cus­tomers are manip­u­lated, each buyer believes in her heart of hearts that she is mak­ing autonomous deci­sions. Ergo with that strange com­mod­ity we call an acquired lan­guage: the moment by moment growth of new lan­guage skill is a pri­vate learn­ing choice, not a pub­lic teach­ing deci­sion. That is why com­pul­sory class­room courses world­wide tend to be such bru­tally unpro­duc­tive learn­ing venues.

Aus­tralia is a pre-emi­nent exam­ple of Anglo mono­lin­gual­ism. Since the writer is Aus­tralian, what fol­lows is one very rough-hewn sug­ges­tion for coax­ing at least a per­cent­age of Aus­tralians out of their lan­guage com­fort zones. Read­ers from other lat­i­tudes may of course adapt the argu­ments to fol­low for their own envi­ron­ments. This par­tic­u­lar Aus­tralian-ori­ented essay is as much con­cerned with chang­ing the Anglo cul­tural belief sys­tem about other lan­guages as about the spread of per­sonal com­pe­ten­cies in L2. There­fore it focuses on young adults rather than young chil­dren (who are ideal lan­guage learn­ers, but sub­ject to the whims of their par­ents’ prej­u­dices). Every­one under­stands a bar­gain, so let’s talk about a grand bar­gain. Firstly how­ever, it will be nec­es­sary to iden­tify what we actu­ally have avail­able to buy and sell.

Aus­tralia makes around $16 bil­lion a year from over­seas stu­dents. This is admit­tedly a rub­bery sta­tis­tic. The sum may be larger if we include all stu­dent-related spend­ing injected into the econ­omy, or less if nar­rower cri­te­ria favoured by some researchers is used. In any case, it is a tidy sum of money, lucky cash for a lucky coun­try. But are Aus­tralians really being smart about the whole for­eign stu­dent deal, or is there scope for another kind of arbi­trage?

The enter­prise of teach­ing for­eign stu­dents in Aus­tralia began a gen­er­a­tion ago as a form of for­eign aid, a skills trans­fer whose return for Aus­tralia was sup­posed to be some form of long term good­will. Some­times that invest­ment paid off, and some­times it didn’t.

The for­eign stu­dent trans­ac­tion in 2013 involves a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion by politi­cians and Aus­tralian insti­tu­tional man­agers. Essen­tially, it is a smash and grab raid on the bank accounts of sup­pos­edly rich Asians. Aus­tralian uni­ver­si­ties and col­leges have been restruc­tured as crude mar­ket­ing machi­nes dri­ven by dol­lar turnover rather than the intan­gi­ble stuff we call char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and learn­ing. This in itself is a big topic, and not the main point of the essay.

The argu­ment I will develop in this essay is that the for­eign stu­dents are a latent human resource who can assist with over­com­ing Eng­lish mono­lin­gual­ism in the Aus­tralian pop­u­la­tion. For­eign stu­dents, prop­erly rewarded, can be a major source of skills trans­fer. Every one of those stu­dents is a walk­ing com­pendium of lan­guage and cul­tural skills that Aus­tralians need to know.

First Japan, then South Korea and now China have hauled them­selves up by the boot­straps not sim­ply by becom­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing sources based on cheap labour, but by obtain­ing trans­fers of tech­ni­cal skills and knowl­edge. Now they have moved to the point of being tech­ni­cal inno­va­tors (espe­cially Japan) in increas­ingly high cost economies. The yel­low brick road to that suc­cess has been at least a mod­icum of for­eign lan­guage com­pe­tence by key seg­ments of their pop­u­la­tions. They had to learn Eng­lish because the Anglos weren’t going to learn their lan­guages.

The lan­guage key for North East Asians hasn’t come eas­ily, and par­tic­u­larly for fiercely mono­cul­tural Japan­ese and Kore­ans, con­tin­ues to give extreme trou­ble. Nev­er­the­less they have done it up to a point by sheer brute per­sis­tence. China is a slightly dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion. For all its mono­lithic front to the out­side world, the Chi­nese empire is a mosaic of lan­guages and cul­tures, Han vari­eties and oth­er­wise. There is evi­dence that even today almost half of Chi­nese cit­i­zens, the still often poverty stricken under­classes, do not prop­erly under­stand the national lan­guage. In prac­ti­cal terms then, any edu­cated main­land Chi­nese cit­i­zen already has to slosh about in a soup of spo­ken dialects and (usu­ally Sinitic) lan­guages. It has always been thus. This will prob­a­bly mean over time, as it has in India, that very large num­bers of Chi­nese will feel fairly com­fort­able slip­ping on an Eng­lish lan­guage cloak when the need arises.

The mono­lin­gual­ism of Anglo Aus­tralians is not based on the kind of tribal exclu­sivism which is such a bar­rier for Kore­ans and Japan­ese. It is how­ever also cul­tur­ally sourced. Anglo Aus­tralian cul­ture has a cer­tain lack­adaisi­cal qual­ity which is nour­ished, when it comes to lan­guage learn­ing, by the con­fi­dence that you are not going to be shot at dawn for fail­ing to speak the tongues of outer bar­bar­ians. If Aus­tralia ever became, heaven help us, a vas­sal state of China (for exam­ple), you can bet that besides resis­tance heroes fight­ing the invaders off from bush hide­outs, there would be a sud­den blos­som­ing of for­eign lan­guage com­pe­tence amongst ambi­tious mid­dle class Aus­tralian youth.

So short of for­eign inva­sion, how can Aus­tralians get the mul­ti­lin­gual smarts? Well, I have sug­gested that it won’t hap­pen with­out a big change in the cul­ture, and cul­tural changes are usu­ally wrench­ing. Some­times they are engi­neered though, and not only for buy­ing tooth­paste.

The Aus­tralian cul­tural par­a­digm which I knew as a child is van­ish­ing fast, and it has been a delib­er­ate process of change. In 1947, the Aus­tralian eth­nic her­itage was about 90% sourced from Eng­land, Scot­land and Ire­land. In 1947 Australia’s then for­eign min­is­ter Arthur Cald­well promised the Aus­tralian par­lia­ment that “we will never have a choco­late coloured Aus­tralia”. Cald­well him­self was a com­plex man who ini­ti­ated Australia’s first major immi­gra­tion pro­gram. By 1999 the Anglo-Celtic ratio had fal­len to 69.8%, and con­tin­ues to fall. Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism has been sold with impres­sive over­all suc­cess; (yes, of course there are some ten­sions, but they are not seri­ously destruc­tive). This was a wrench­ing change indeed, but after all, change has been the only con­stant since the indus­trial rev­o­lu­tion took hold. If we can alter the very eth­nic fab­ric of Aus­tralia so dras­ti­cally within a gen­er­a­tion, we can also alter the ways in which for­eign lan­guages are viewed.

The track to per­suad­ing Bruce and Tracey that they need skills in another lan­guage would have to include rewards for sur­viv­ing the dis­tance. The rewards might be money, but they might also be sta­tus, or fash­ion approval, or mobil­ity, or jobs, or a dozen other things. How­ever, the rewards need to be pow­er­ful, fre­quent, addic­tive and widely under­stood. Rewards need to be both short term and long term. This is going to be tough since many of Australia’s opin­ion lead­ers are also failed lan­guage learn­ers. My instinct is that a direct assault on that bat­tal­ion of beer bel­lies is sure to fail. They have to be out­flanked.

All of which brings us back to the $16 bil­lion army of for­eign stu­dents bear­ing gifts. They have the lan­guages and cul­tural knowl­edge which Aus­tralia needs. How­ever they are pay­ing an inflated price for Aus­tralian qual­i­fi­ca­tions taught in the Eng­lish lan­guage. Can’t we cut a deal here? Can’t we arrange some reverse lan­guage trans­fer?

OK, a lan­guage speaker does not a nat­u­ral lan­guage teacher make. This is a pro­fes­sional Eng­lish lan­guage teacher writ­ing. He is part of a pro­fes­sion which is con­sid­ered a fake pro­fes­sion with­out sta­tus, secu­rity or a reli­able income, since the com­mon wis­dom is that any­body who speaks Eng­lish can teach it, until they go back to their real job of flip­ping ham­burg­ers. I hap­pen to know that pro­fes­sion­ally com­pe­tent lan­guage teach­ers are far more pro­duc­tive than ama­teurs who are just mak­ing a dol­lar on the side. But as a ter­tiary teacher with thirty-five years of expe­ri­ence, twelve in South Korea and China, it would be churl­ish not to admit that a deter­mined lan­guage learner can suc­ceed with almost any kind of help, and some­times with none.

Most East Asian learn­ers have been forced to put up with ama­teur for­eigner teach­ers plus often less than inspired or com­pe­tent local teach­ers, yet a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of them acquire enough Eng­lish to enter Aus­tralian insti­tu­tions.

Let’s make a pro­posal. Thou­sands of for­eign stu­dents in Aus­tralia are forced to hunt for unskilled jobs to sup­port their stud­ies. This unskilled work is a dubi­ous con­tri­bu­tion to Australia’s needs – we have our own masses of unskilled, under­em­ployed work­ers. Such work is often demor­al­iz­ing for the stu­dents, and a poor use of their nat­u­ral apti­tudes.

Can’t we set up an intel­li­gently planned pilot pro­gram to twin some of these for­eign stu­dents in an exchange with Aus­tralians who are will­ing to learn their lan­guages? The Aus­tralian would become a cul­tural men­tor in local ways while the for­eign stu­dent would become a lan­guage men­tor in his or her mother tongue. Three or four Aus­tralians could be matched with one or two for­eign stu­dents. A pur­pose-designed social inter­net site could offer co-ordi­na­tion, guid­ance and pro­fes­sional lan­guage eval­u­a­tion to over­see the whole process.

If the engine to drive this exchange were just good­will, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t sur­vive for long. There would have to be a frame­work of coach­ing in how to teach and how to learn. But above all there would have to be a finan­cial incen­tive.

For the for­eign stu­dents, for exam­ple, the visa reg­u­la­tions could be changed to allow a cat­e­gory with ten hours of per­mit­ted part time work weekly in com­bi­na­tion with ten hours of accred­ited coach­ing. The present reg­u­la­tions allow twenty hours weekly of unspec­i­fied labour. The coach­ing con­cept might be to co-funded, say dol­lar for con­ven­tion­ally earned dol­lar. The co-fund­ing would come from a spon­sor ( .. the gov­ern­ment? White knight foun­da­tion? Grant or loan?).

For the Aus­tralians, they could be for­given stepped lev­els of their HECS debt for meet­ing defined lan­guage learn­ing goals. (HECS is a gov­ern­ment tuition loan scheme, with repay­ment through a small per­cent­age addi­tion to income tax, and delayed until earn­ings reach a cer­tain level). That would cer­tainly focus Aus­tralian stu­dent minds.

Fund­ing such ama­teur lan­guage coach­ing would be an invest­ment for Aus­tralia, pro­vided speci­fic learn­ing out­comes were assessed hon­estly by pro­fes­sional lan­guage teach­ers. On grad­u­a­tion, the suc­cess­ful learn­ers might also be helped with work expe­ri­ence intern­ships in coun­tries of the tar­get lan­guage.

Any­one famil­iar with the cur­rent state of for­mal lan­guage teach­ing and learn­ing in Aus­tralia knows that things are rather dire. The par­a­digm has to change. Of those Aus­tralians who do begin to learn a for­eign lan­guage in insti­tu­tions, most drop out unless they are from immi­grant fam­i­lies where that for­eign lan­guage is also their parent’s home lan­guage. The uni­verse of pri­vate learn­ing via Inter­net com­mu­ni­ties offers new oppor­tu­ni­ties to those with the drive and moti­va­tion, but is unlikely to empower most of those who have not been social­ized into “need­ing” new lan­guage: the Anglo-Celtic hold­outs.

A finan­cially incen­tivized men­tor­ing com­mu­nity of young Aus­tralians and for­eign stu­dents is just one sug­ges­tion for prod­ding a redi­rec­tion of cul­tural lan­guage habits. Objec­tions are easy to antic­i­pate. For exam­ple, it could be expected that sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralians with a fam­ily link to their parent’s cul­tures might also be attracted to a men­tor­ing pro­gram along with the doggedly mono­lin­gual Anglo-Celtic natives. How­ever, that would not be such a bad thing either since the gen­er­a­tional loss of lan­guage skills amongst immi­grant descen­dants is usu­ally rapid. The men­tor­ing pro­gram in this case would be main­tain­ing a lan­guage asset for the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity.

There are many rea­sons for Anglo-Australia’s extreme mono­lin­gual­ism, but the bot­tom line is that learn­ing incen­tives fail. Lan­guage learn­ing is a highly per­sonal, time con­sum­ing process, and insti­tu­tions are inher­ently bad at nur­tur­ing per­sonal needs.

It may well be that the per­sonal bond­ing between small groups of Aus­tralians and for­eign stu­dents, sweet­ened with a bit of exter­nal fund­ing, could provide just the com­bi­na­tion of warmth and oblig­a­tion needed for lan­guage learn­ing take­off in an over­whelm­ingly mono­lin­gual cul­ture.


Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 


con­tact: http://thormay.net    thormay@yahoo.com


All opin­ions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.


Mono­lin­gual­ism and How to Fix It (if it needs fix­ing) ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved

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