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Multilingualism and multiculturalism

By Karen Woodman - posted Wednesday, 28 May 2008

From the perspective of a Canadian, the current discussion on language education in Australia is very interesting - primarily because many of the questions being raised about the viability of language education have arguably been answered by other international experiences.

For example, growing up in a country where bilingualism - and multiculturalism - has been official policy for more than 30 years, it is normal for Canadians to self-identify as “hyphenates” (for example, Greek-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, French-Canadian, and so on) without undermining their “Canadian identity”.

Thousands of children have graduated from language immersion programs without losing their first language(s) or suffering any other damage (in fact, quite the contrary). “Heritage language” programs promote and celebrate cultural diversity without undermining social order; and indigenous language programs have been prominent in the cultural revitalisation programs of the First Nations, which have been key to supporting development within those communities.


Government policies supporting language education have not driven the country bankrupt, nor have they negatively had an impact on national or international opinion. In fact, Canadians are generally known for their tolerance and openness to other cultures, arguably a product of the cultural “mosaic” approach (and “additive bilingualism”), rather than the “melting pot” (“subtractive bilingualism”) of, for example, the US.

This is not, of course, to imply Canada is an oasis of harmony and understanding (there are still linguistic and cultural tensions in different regions), but rather to underline the fact that official recognition of cultural and linguistic diversity clearly can have a real impact on how the population perceives such issues.

As a number of writers have noted, continental Europe has a long tradition of multilingualism, supported by government via language education and other policies. The expectation in Europe is that the majority of the population will study and learn at least one other language. In other parts of the world, the expectation is that most people will speak several languages.

Why is the issue of expectations important in a discussion of language education?

It’s because research suggests that we rise to the level of our expectations. If a population believes that learning an additional language is normal, expected, useful, and attainable, then the goal is often attained. This perspective is also supported by research on the important role of motivation in language learning. Providing opportunities for language education is only part of the equation - creating the social, political, economic and psychological environments in which learning languages are valued is equally important.

There are psycholinguistic benefits of multilingualism, as well as economic benefits. Psycholinguistic benefits include both cognitive and neurolinguistic “flexibility”. That is, people who speak more than one language often find it easier to deal with linguistic and other complexity, and multilingualism does have an impact on the type and amount of “wiring” in the brain.


Economically, as humourously illustrated by the HSBC ads in airports, understanding the languages and cultures of your business partners is crucial to success - and miscommunication literally costs money. Kevin Rudd’s fluency in Mandarin has already proven beneficial to Australia’s relationship with China, and his government’s apology to the Stolen Generations, which demonstrated both cultural and linguistic sensitivity, has had a very positive impact on the International Community’s view of Australia.

These examples demonstrate that the benefits of being able to speak to colleagues and clients literally in their own language are not only a demonstration of respect and interest, but pragmatically also minimise miscommunications which can cause political and/or economic damage.

So what does all of this mean to the question of language education in Australia? Well, as suggested by a number of the previous writers, it implies the need for both cultural and policy changes at the government and individual levels. Having a Prime Minister who is fluent in another language - and one that is considered quite difficult for many - is a good first start. It demonstrates that learning a language is possible, and possibly even helpful to one’s career. Providing additional funding for LOTE at all levels of the school system (including training LOTE teachers) is also necessary. A long term commitment to such funding (both perceived and real) is critical, since the results of language education are not immediate.

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About the Author

Dr Karen Woodman is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology (Kelvin Grove). From 2000-2007, Dr Woodman was a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of New England, where she co-ordinated development and implementation of the online Master of Arts (Applied Linguistics). She has also lectured in Canada, the US and Europe. Her research interests include online teaching and learning, teacher development and teacher cognition, language activation, and the role of genetics in second language acquisition.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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