What is Language For? “Other” vs. “Heritage” Language Education in Australia

Pacific Prospective features the research of graduate students.

Memo #227

By Naghmeh Babaee – Naghmeh_um [at] yahoo.ca

Australia is an ethno-linguistically diverse country with more than 15% of people speaking languages other than English, or a heritage language, at home. While learning English can contribute to immigrant students’ socioeconomic and educational success, heritage language maintenance facilitates maintaining ties with family and community members unable to speak English, avoiding a potential generation gap in immigrant families. Heritage language maintenance refers to a situation where immigrants continue using their languages in a host society. Additionally, maintaining a heritage language and ethnic identity are interconnected; individuals who lost their heritage languages reported feeling as though a part of their identities were missing. Finally, heritage language maintenance promotes multilingualism in society, which facilitates economic, cultural and political communications among countries.

Among the aims of the country’s multicultural policies are facilitating Australians in learning languages other than English by, for example, offering language courses in public schools. However, less than 20% of students study a language other than English and, until recent government initiatives, the proportion studying such a language in senior secondary and tertiary education had been declining.

At a closer look, the Australian government appears to view bilingualism as a resource to serve the country, rather than immigrant communities. Such an orientation is evident in this government statement: “Young Australians with skills in languages other than English and an understanding of international cultures are vital to the nation’s future in a global community”. Perhaps as a result of this orientation, many programs focus on developing a communicative proficiency in languages other than English; however, the needs of immigrant children in maintaining their heritage languages are less emphasized.

To encourage immigrant students to study languages other than English, federal and state policies need to highlight not only societal, but also personal and social benefits of maintaining their heritage language for immigrant children. Moreover, courses should cover heritage culture, in addition to teaching such a language. Connecting with their pasts, developing a sense of ethnic identity and maintaining familial ties through a heritage language and culture can motivate immigrant students to maintain these languages by studying them at school.

Naghmeh Babaee is a PhD candidate in Second Language Education at the University of Manitoba.

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