Australia is in danger of reverting to assimilist, monocultural attitudes which would deal a shattering blow to its ability to compete in a globalised 21st century, one of the nation’s foremost linguistic educators has warned.
Professor Michael Clyne, of the University of Melbourne, was speaking at a meeting of the Canberra Regional Languages Forum. He said the last 15 years had seen enormous cutbacks in Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism and multilingualism "particularly in the teaching of languages in schools, but also in other areas".
"We need to make sure we do not lose any more of the initiatives which once made Australia a model for the rest of the world to follow"” he said.
"We are certainly not a model any more. We can’t allow things to get any worse than they are".
Professor Clyne’s address comes at a time when multiculturalism is under attack in a number of Western countries, notably in Britain, where some conservative commentators are blaming it for the appearance of home-grown terrorism. In Australia the introduction of the citizenship test and the removal of ‘Multicultural Affairs’ from the title of the Department of Immigration are seen as subtle wedges in the bipartisan support for multiculturalism that has existed since the days of the Whitlam Government.
The danger for Australia in this trend goes far beyond a particular political vision of what society should be. A monocultural and, more importantly, monolingual Australia would be out of step with a world actively preparing itself to meet the requirements of an emerging global economic and commercial infrastructure in which national boundaries will be largely irrelevant.
Already almost two billion people use English to some degree, outnumbering native English speakers three to one. It will not be long before knowledge of English will accrue no especial benefit to its user unless it is combined with the ability to communicate in at least one other language and preferably more.
Even the custodianship of the English language by native speakers is under threat. In Britain a report by the Demos think tank maintains the language is no longer the preserve of the English who are "just one of many shareholders in a global asset" using a brand of "Imperial English" better suited to the days of the British Empire than the modern world.
The report says English is now a family of related languages and calls for new immigrants to be allowed to learn blends such as Hinglish (Hindi/Punjabi/Urdu English) Chinglish (Chinese English) or Spanglish (Spanish English), the belief being that native English speakers would gradually attune themselves to these varieties if they are allowed to flourish rather than being corralled in ghettoes.
English linguist David Graddol predicts that within the next two decades English will have become a basic skill for educated people throughout the world and that those speaking English will no longer have any particular advantage.
"As a result monoglot English graduates face a bleak future as talented multilingual youngsters from other countries prove to have a competitive advantage over their British counterparts in global companies and organisations", he says.
"The advantage will come to those who speak English and at least one other language, but preferably two or three languages".
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.