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Australia's linguistic culture and its impact on languages education.


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. In the main, French was taught, as a 'foreign' and elitist language rather than a community language. Although French was viewed as a 'modern' language, in practice it was taught as a dead language in the same way that Greek and Latin were taught--as was also the ease in England. French, Latin, and Greek were taught largely as disciplinary and linguistic studies to access high culture (Wykes & King, 1968).


In the early 20th century English became the marker of the new national ethos and as the two World Wars consolidated links with Britain, xenophobia and intolerance of other languages that represented cultural difference were reinforced as dominant attitudes amongst the Anglo-Celtic population. During this period, the majority of white Australians, who were of British or Irish descent, identified strongly with homogenous British culture and the English language. The main dissenters were the 25% of the population seen as Irish 'trouble makers'. Stephenson (1936) asserts the need of the dominant group in Australia in this period to be recognised as 'purely and only' British.

White Australia's early and subsequent forms of attachment to a homogenous British culture reflect a unique and complex mix of influences that are at the root of contemporary Australia's ambivalent relationship with other languages and cultures.


Originally, the majority of white settlers and their offspring were from the lower and poorer working classes who sought upward social mobility. Many in this majority group were ex-convicts or had convict ancestors and were eager to disown their 'shameful past' as a way to gain social respectability and status. In a new country that praised itself for giving everyone a 'fair go' regardless of background, identifying primarily with being British rather than with being lower-class or ex-convict gave the bulk of settlers sociocultural empowerment in a foreign and 'hostile' land. Allegiance to

British culture was especially attractive as the British tended to project themselves as 'a self-proclaimed superior race born to rule' (Jones, 2003)--in the late 19th century, in particular, this kind of belief system reflected intellectual debates of the times that promoted white-race purity and supremacy. Identification with the superior race provided a sense of psychocultural security in the newly formed Australian society where indigenous wars and fear of Russian, German, and French imperialist expansion, and later threats from other 'coloured' (Asian) races dominated the white Anglo imagination.

Greer (2003) tempers this explanation of early British allegiance when she remarks that many 'British' convicts transported to Australia and their descendants were predominantly of Irish descent who would have fallen for the advantages 'faked Britishness' offered, whilst remaining anti-British to some extent at 'a gut' level. Arguably, this early example of a discrepancy between a convenient allegiance to a distant though familiar British culture, mid truer but often unarticulated sentiments of pride in another cultural affiliation--in this case Irish affiliation, but in other cases affiliation to a burgeoning 'non-indigenous authentic Australian culture'--foreshadowed in part what was to develop in time into White Australia's endemic 'cultural anxiety' (Ang, 2003).


By the end of the 19th century British Australia, challenged by internal tensions within its own ranks mid conflicts with its indigenous peoples, also felt increasingly threatened by the 'coloured' races within its own territory. New immigrants, such as Chinese gold diggers in Victoria and labourers from the Pacific Islands in Queensland, were perceived as a direct threat to many white workers fearful of losing their jobs to cheaper and more industrious workers.

White Australia, distant from the motherland and in close proximity to foreigners geographically (to Asian countries) as well as within its own territory (to its 'coloured' immigrants), soon turned into 'a federation of fear' (Crowley, 1974). Fear of the foreign culminated in the passage of the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, the cornerstone of the 'White Australia Policy', that decided who could or could not enter the country by imposing the passing of a spelling test in a 'European' language on all new migrants. Historically, this language test can be regarded as Australia's first formal language policy (Herriman, 1996). The initial proposal was that the test should be taken in English only. However, it was quickly argued that as this could disadvantage white European migrants who did not know English and advantage unwanted non-white migrants who could speak English, such as black Americans, it was decided to have a test in a 'European' language instead. This requirement was later amended to a test in 'any prescribed language' to avoid offending the Japanese, then Britain's ally (Yarwood, 1964; Jupp, 1988). This first form of official language policy with its frequent amendments reflected the problems associated with White Australia's desire to maintain white race supremacy through 'English only' immigration tests.

The Immigration Restriction Act was abandoned by 1958, but the White Australia Policy was not abandoned until the Whitlam Government removed restrictions to immigration on racial grounds in the early 1970s.

Subsequent developments in Australian history show, however, that the influence of the dominant racist ideology and linguistic insularity behind earlier immigration regulation was to remain palpable well into current times, both within and beyond languages education.


This linguistic insularity was noticeable in languages education right up until the mid1960s in that, during this period, foreign languages in secondary schools remained elitist subjects and involved mainly the teaching of French and some German. The only change from the previous era was that the grammar-translation method, which had been used to study French along with the Classics and English, was gradually put aside.

After federation, and as world commerce increased, the new Australian nation recognised its need for the practical knowledge of languages for trading, in particular with European markets. Focus was put on teaching authentic spoken language with the help of the direct method. However, disenchantment with this method arose very quickly and, although oral work remained important, from the late 1920s until the 1950s, the focus returned to reading and literary study.

The audiolingual method that appeared between the mid-1950s and early 1960s was an expression of renewed utilitarian concerns at a time in education that sought to make diffusion of knowledge useful to national economic prosperity. It was perceived then that to be useful to international trade, languages had to be taught for comprehension and spoken skills. There was no awareness at the time that teaching languages for international communication needed to consider the links between language and culture. Culture was taught as what Kramsch (1993) was later to call 'a fifth skill', i.e. separate from linguistic skills.

By the mid-1960s, however, languages education was heading towards a crisis point beyond that of content and methodological issues. The post-war period had increased the democratisation of education as more students from varied social backgrounds completed secondary education and entered universities. At the same time, the affluent society of the 1960s saw the growth of materialism that led in schools to a preference for subjects that had more practical relevance than languages. The stigma of elitism and intellectual discipline that languages had carried from the past did not sit well with the new democratic and materialistic orientations of society. What Barcan (1988) has coined as Australia's historical 'suspicion of the intellect' was (and has remained) part of the lack of recognition of the intrinsic value of learning languages that has always been perceived as a demanding intellectual activity.

By the 1970s, further societal shifts resulted from the influx of immigrants, which brought forward new developments in attitudes towards languages and cultures, and languages education.


From the 1970s onwards, successive waves of new migrants such as southern Italians viewed by some as 'not-white enough', other Europeans (Ip et al., 19992), and newcomers from Asia kept enlarging the 'migrant presence' of British Australia, darkening its whiteness (Martin, 1970). Multiculturalism had become a feature of the Australian population before it became official policy. Soon, prompted by the new radical movements of the time in favour of ethnic and indigenous rights, official policies of multiculturalism endorsed by both sides of Australian politics (Smolicz, 1984) started to promote cultural and linguistic pluralism. Australia's official voices were showing a genuine commitment towards a more tolerant and less prejudiced society.

Since the 1970s, numerous multicultural policies have been successful in preventing uncontrollable outbursts of racism or mass movements of anti-migrant hostility (Bottomley, 1992), but they have not succeeded in freeing Australia from cultural prejudice. This is because multicultural policies promote cultural difference in abstract and distant terms and at a macro level. Their impact is not sufficient at a micro level to support individuals and institutions to use new patterns for relating across differences on equal terms. This has led critics of multicultural rhetoric to argue, for instance, that Australian multiculturalism has created 'a kind of repressive tolerance towards cultural practices of the large immigrant population' (Bottomley, 19992), or that acceptance of other cultures under 'white' multiculturalism is lived at its best as 'unperturbing enrichment' (Hage, 1998). According to these critics, culture within white multiculturalism is kept at a distance. It is mainly the business of foreign others and is allowed to enrich but not challenge monocultural and monoglot Australians.

What Hage (1998) refers to as 'an enduring white national fantasy of supremacy' explains in part the limited success of Australian multiculturalism. It explains why in extreme instances in some parts of Australia, young Australians still support the old settlers' racist views towards Aboriginal people and other non-white 'mongrels' (Reynolds, 1999). In 1998 remnants of Anglo-Australian historical fear of the foreign were also reflected in the relative success of One Nation, Pauline Hanson's new political party, which managed to rally votes along the lines of division between us (the Anglo-Australians) and them, the 'ethnic' migrants, and this moreover without attracting much criticism from any key politicians at the time (Quinn, 1998). The current dominant and negative political discourse on the accommodation of 'illegal ethnic' refugees on Australian soil is also symptomatic of White Australia's endemic fear of losing its space to others, in both a geographical and a cultural sense.

The ongoing national anxiety in relation to cultural diversity and the perceived threat it poses to a single, homogenous Australia has been traced by academic commentators in numerous Government reports published on the management of multiculturalism since the 1970s. Lo Bianco (1998), for instance, noted that the first of these reports Australia as a Multicultural Society (NMAC, 1977), whilst trying to sort out the relationship between 'ethnics' and Anglo-Australians, could not conceive of new patterns for dealing with difference; hence, it did not consider 'hybridity' as a viable form of difference and of identity. The fear behind this conceptual rigidity was that allegiance to two cultures would allegedly prevent full commitment to Australia as a nation. Twenty years later very little had changed, as suggested in Jayasuriya's (1998, p. 4) criticism of the Government report Multicultural Australia: The Way Forward (NMAC, 1997) that also noted the Government's recurring failure to acknowledge 'the fact of difference' and with it 'the challenge of political pluralism', as well as the need to allow new forms of ethnicities that engage difference rather than suppress it. From Jayasuriya's perspective, 'culture' in Australia 'is not the problem nor the solution'. The real challenge is learning how to deal with difference without suppressing it, including difference expressed through language, an area commonly overlooked in the discourse of cultural politics. It is not easy to detect power issues implicit in the ways that individuals use language when interacting with others--from the same or from different cultural backgrounds for that matter--because they involve unconscious communicative strategies.

In 1999, however, a new awareness of the importance of ethnicity, at least at policy level, was reflected in the report Australian Multiculturalism (NMAC, 1999), in which the National Multicultural Advisory Council to the Federal Government corrected former official misconceptions about what the term multiculturalism meant. In this report multiculturalism is no longer a matter for immigration and minority ethnic communities alone, but for all Australians, including Anglo-Australians:
 ... multiculturalism is for all
 Australians ... whether born here or
 overseas and whether of English or
 non-English-speaking origin'.
 (NMAC, 1999)

This statement falls short of saying that Anglo-Australians have an 'ethnic' background, hence that they too are 'different others', but it recognises, at least and at last, that they are part of multiculturalism. However, recent conceptual shifts in political parlance towards a more democratic understanding of ethnicity have not prevented the recent resurfacing of strong allegiance to the concept of a homogenous Australia. In the latest Government report Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity (NMAC, 2003), which was written in response to the September ii events and the Bali bombings, Australia's ongoing fear of diversity is reaffirmed. This report is retrograde since it argues that diversity needs to be contained within a unifying national and, in effect, culturally homogenous society. Unity in this report is still conceived as loyalty to one coherent Anglo-Australian culture and recognition of English as the national language, both to take precedence over other cultural values and languages (NMAC, 2003, p. 6).

This kind of political discourse repeats history, as Anglo-Celtic notions of 'civic obligations' and 'democracy' continue to be held as universal values that can unite all beyond differences. Within this cultural paradigm, all indigenous and 'ethnic' world views are supposed to accommodate to one set of western concepts of civism and democracy. Cultural, ethical, and linguistic hybridity is still not envisaged as an option, nor is it conceived as compatible with civic obligations.

The new face of racism in multicultural Australia may no longer be commonly found in overt forms of prejudice of the kind portrayed in the Hansonite upsurge of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but arguably it is now based on more subtle cultural criteria. Multicultural political correctness acknowledges and accepts difference whilst keeping it at a distance, and preference for one's own culture is put forward as 'natural' (Ip et al., 1992) and as a necessity for national coherence. In essence, Australian multiculturalism expressed today in official discourse does not appear to be supportive of current new intercultural orientations in language teaching that seek to promote flexible and hybrid forms of cultural identities among language learners, and in which reflective distantiation rather than overattachment to one's own world view is held to he a better option for multi- and intercultural harmony.


In restricted but nonetheless beneficial ways, multicultural ideology has had positive consequences for Australian education, but this is mainly outside the teaching of major languages (e.g. French, German, and Japanese).

A multicultural dimension was implemented in the curriculum in the early 1980s in all Australian States and Territories. This initiative, started in the early 1970s, was expanded by the Galbally Report (1978), which had called for increased State intervention in support of new immigrants to Australia, in particular in the areas of welfare and education. Multicultural education programs, when they were first implemented, were the catchcry for policymakers and educators in recognition of ethnic differences within schools (Sachs, 1989). However, these programs were short-lived. They received funding from the Federal Government only until 1986 (Lo Bianco, 1990) due to their limited success, as was demonstrated in the Review of the Commonwealth Multicultural Education Program (Cahill, 1984). The review showed that the program had not been implemented in the majority of schools and, where it had been, had not brought about substantial and lasting change in the Australian schooling system.

Since then, multicultural education has remained in the school curriculum in all States and Territories, but only as 'a perspective' that teachers must consider across disciplines rather than a subject in its own right. Although such an approach could work in principle, the lack of clarity in multicultural education policies around key concepts and teaching method generally has not supported change in practice (Sachs, 1989). Lo Bianco (1990), for instance, suggests that it is in part the 'non-generative' static notion of culture embedded in policy documents that has limited the transformative effect that multicultural education desires but fails to have.

Critics of the multicultural education movement in Australia follow in essence the arguments against 'white' multiculturalism. Within the logic of what can be termed 'white' multicultural education, culture has been largely equated with the rights of immigrants to enjoy their heritage--it is to be 'tolerated' rather than 'engaged with'. For instance, Smolicz (1984) and Lo Bianco (1990) have argued that multicultural education has partly failed because it has focused mainly on the maintenance of the cultures and languages of immigrant children, leaving mainstream children unaffected. Smolicz (1984) called this restricted approach to culture and languages education 'a multiculturalism of residues'.

Despite leaving the mainstream barely touched, and in effect contributing very little to more public 'ethnic' participation in Anglo-Australian society, multicultural education, when it was combined in the mid-1970s with the need to respond in linguistic terms to new economic and strategic concerns, did help raise national awareness of the importance of learning languages (Clyne, 1991). By the 1980s, the teaching of immigrant languages was no longer seen as 'a problem' that required remedial measures in order to keep immigrants happy (Lo Bianco, 1990). 'Migrant languages' (a term that included Aboriginal languages) were renamed 'community languages' to show their relevance not only to immigrants and Aborigines but also to what was claimed to be the community's economic interests.

In the mid-1970s, when Britain gained access to the European Economic Community (now the European Union), Australia lost its primary export partner and was forced to turn to Asia to expand its international trade. In this context, 'community languages' that could facilitate commercial and political interests were suddenly promoted as 'a national resource' (Lo Bianco, 2001). From this period onwards, both social and ethical arguments (e.g. languages for national intercultural harmony) and instrumentalist arguments (e.g. languages for trade and geopolitical interests) have been put forward in support of language learning.

In reality, 'community' languages that have most benefited from Government support are not necessarily the languages of immigrant communities, but the languages that are perceived to best serve national economic interests. Japanese, for example, replaced French by the late 1980s as the most popular foreign language in Australia because Government bodies promoted it as one of the languages that best served the nation's economic interests in Asia (Bramley & Hanamura, 1998). The disparity between intention (political rhetoric in favour of all community languages) and action (priority funding given to languages for international politics and trade) reveals Australia's ambivalence towards an unconditional support of multilingualism, i.e. the use, teaching, and learning of any language. Selective or interested multilingualism reveals the reluctance of Anglo-Australia to share its dominance over the national cultural and linguistic space. It is an integral part of what Singh (2003) refers to as 'White Australia politics', a remnant of 19th century colonialist thinking that bears the mark of an over-attachment to English and a dislike of other languages. Clyne (1991) refers to the same issue as 'the ongoing historical tension between monolingualism and multilingualism' that has characterised Australian history since white settlement. The only substantial change between white settlement and now is that the elitist languages of the past, such as French, have been challenged by the languages of trade.

Amidst what may appear to be a rather negative painting of Australia's languages education history, there was in the mid-1980s one important ideological breakthrough for a more overt support of languages education (including community languages) that ought to be noted at this point of the argument. This was the Government's passing of the first National Policy on Languages in 1987 (Lo Bianco, 1987), prompted by the lobbying of language professionals and other interest groups at the time. This policy committed the nation to cultural pluralism and was followed by a policy framework to reform languages education in Australia. Multilingualism and multiculturalism seemed to blend for a while as this policy, 'a philosophy of linguistic and cultural pluralism' (Scarino, 1998), was hinting at new forms of identity that could reconcile diversity and unity, language and culture. This ideological breakthrough was compromised in subsequent language policies, but it remains 20 years later a blueprint for the future of languages education in Australia, an argument beyond the scope of this article to examine further.

In keeping with the core argument of this article, one oddity that is worth reflecting upon that illustrates most strikingly the lack of unconditional support for language learning, despite the development of official multiculturalism and official language policies in Australia, has been the never rescinded decision since 1968 to remove a language requirement for university entrance (Lo Bianco, 1995). This decision has been a continuing and major disincentive for learning languages in schools, and as a result, the following two decades saw the number of students who took a foreign language in their final year of secondary school fall from 40% in the 1960s to 12% in the 1980s (Wilson, 1993). In 1998 findings from the evaluation of the Commonwealth School Languages Program in Advancing Australia's Languages: Overview Report ( DEETYA, 1998) indicated that where language learning is compulsory, enrolments have increased, i.e. in primary schools and the first years of high school, but trends in post-compulsory years are problematic and demonstrate that languages are still not valued.

Today, not much has changed, as is shown in the latest Review of Languages Education in Australia (MCEETYA, 2003) that found that approximately 50% of school students are learning a language in mainstream schools at some point, but low enrolments remain the norm in language classes in the final years of high school.

At tertiary level until recently less than one per cent of education students completed a language unit as part of their course (DEET, 1991). As noted by Bettoni and Leal (1994), the lack of support for languages in Australia has led to the current situation where language learning is not compulsory in any degree, including degrees in the humanities:
 In sharp contrast with its
 multicultural image is the poor
 esteem which Australian society at
 large holds all languages other than
 English ... In Australia, it is possible
 to graduate and even gain a PhD
 degree without having studied
 formally any language besides
 English. (Bettoni & Leal, 1994)

In recent years, however, interest and enthusiasm for language learning is making a slow comeback in some Australian universities, as it is increasingly recognised that globalisation requires a multilingual workforce capable of interacting across cultures. The inclusion of compulsory language learning in some degrees, e.g. degrees in international relations, is now spreading across Australian universities, especially for degrees in arts and economics. Future research on language learning in tertiary institutions may well show an increase in student enrolments in language courses. This in turn may lead in the distant future to the reversal of the 1968 decision to cancel a language requirement for tertiary, entrance and may consequently help the re-establishment of language learning in the last years of secondary schooling.


Until the 1970s, White Australia's political ideology was built on the suppression of cultural and linguistic difference, which confined the learning of languages in schools to a restricted number of European languages such as French, in line with the British tradition of elitist language education. In the late 1960s, increased democratisation and pragmatisation in education pushed elitist languages education aside and paved the way for the support of the teaching of immigrant/ community languages that followed in the 1980s as part of the implementation of multicultural policy in education. At the same time, awareness that Australia lies in the Asian region has carved a place for Asian languages (especially Japanese) in mainstream schools, displacing French as the leading language it had once been and undermining to an extent support for community languages. Multicultural education, which has supported the teaching of community languages, together with the effects of Asian regionalism on languages education, contributed to the recognition that language learning was important for a variety of national interests. Support for both community languages and languages for trade interests were part of the lobbying movement in favour of language learning that led to the passing of a succession of language policies between 1987 and 1997. (It would take a separate article to present an analysis of the impact of Australia's linguistic culture on the development of these policies.) By way of conclusion, however, suffice it to say that the relationship of White Australia to languages other than English and to other cultures has always been ambivalent, and this is likely to remain so for a very long time to come. It is the legacy of white settlement history with its monolingual mindset (Clyne, 2005), struggling to reconcile multiculturalism (and now globalisation) with multilingualism.

I believe that language teachers, both overseas- and Australian-born, ought to be given frequent opportunities to reflect during pre- and inservice training on the nature of Australia's past and present linguistic culture and on the kind of impact that it is having on language teaching in the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors. This kind of background contextual knowledge for the language teaching profession is useful when talking to politicians, principals, parents, or students with recalcitrant attitudes towards language learning. Whenever favourable Government initiatives towards language learning- are undertaken, they depend largely on the recipients (principals, parents, students) of these initiatives who make or refrain from change on the basis of the kind of linguistic culture that they knowingly or unknowingly adhere to. Part of improving language learning is to value the subject more in the first place. Hence, the more that language teachers are prepared to contribute to making a more positive linguistic culture in Australia, the better for the future of languages education.


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Chantal Crozet works in the School of Language Studies at the Australian National University. She may be contacted at
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