Language is the passport to personal mobility, opportunity and prosperity

By Kurt Mullane, Executive Director, Asia Education Foundation

I recently took a call from a journalist suggesting ‘Australian students need not learn foreign languages at school, as English is the indisputable global lingua franca and the education dollar, and our kids’ own time, might be better spent studying other subjects’. It’s a familiar and mistaken line of argument. 

More than a decade ago, Professor Tony Liddicoat responded to the same discourse by stating that ‘we in the English-speaking world seem to have lost sight of languages as educationally important’. We have replaced this idea with the view that languages are educationally useful and we have seen this view increasingly undermined by the argument that ‘everyone speaks English’ (Babel 2002). 

The problem is, they don’t. English actually trails Chinese and Spanish as the third most commonly spoken language in the world, just ahead of Bengali, Hindi and Arabic. In 1950 about 9% of the world’s population spoke English as their first language. That figure is now about 5.6%. While the proportion increases significantly when you add speakers of English as a second or third language, we’re still left with around 70-80% of humanity not speaking English. Being a monolingual English-speaker places you firmly in humanity’s minority group. 

There’s no denying the global reach of the English language. It’s the beating heart of international business and commerce, publication and translation, academic research, of popular culture, the Internet and human mobility. But notions of English language hegemony are not only false, they are also dangerous. They engender a complacency and naivety that does a disservice to the best interests of kids in our schools, and Australian society more broadly. 

The view that ‘English is enough’ fails to acknowledge that being bilingual or multilingual is an increasingly necessary passport to personal mobility, opportunity and prosperity, particularly in knowledge and services based economies where the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively across borders is a prized skill-set. A monolingual mindset also ignores the positive role language learning can play in safeguarding Australia’s social and cultural harmony. Julie Bishop got it right in 2011 when she suggested language learning could be a ‘brilliant form of soft diplomacy’, strengthening our capacity to work collaboratively in an increasingly interdependent and volatile world. 

In most parts of Australia though, it’s pretty easy to ignore that the majority of the world’s population is, at a minimum, bi-lingual. Public life in Australia is invariably monolingual. Heads of industry, politicians, media, sport and cultural identities speaking more than one language are exceptions, not the rule. The reality is that most Australians speaking languages other than English do so in their private lives, out of earshot of the English first speaking population. 

Those of us working in and with schools are all too familiar with the ambivalence many students have for languages learning. The number of students who discontinue languages study when they have discretion over that decision is very high. The reasons for attrition are complex and varied, but the perception among students that studying a language represents a low value proposition is one of most potent determining factors. 

Acknowledging and addressing misplaced complacencies regarding the ascendency and hegemony of the English language is an important first step in helping our students understand that studying languages can help them achieve their full learning potential. Indeed it can help them hold their own in a globalised job market and develop the skills needed to live comfortably with diversity. Not doing so will leave our students at risk of being marginalised as part of the monolingual minority. We owe them more than that.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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