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Michael Clyne has a good article in today's Australian Higher Education Supplement where he attacks the monolingual mindset of the Federal Government, as shown by Alexander Downer's extraordinary remarks in an interview, a transcript of which appears on his website. Here are the low points.

MR DOWNER: (speaks French) But I mean I don’t think in diplomacy the fact that you can speak foreign languages is anything special and obviously he runs the risk of being seen by a lot of Australians as a show-off.
PRESENTER: So you think that’s how it went down with foreign visitors as well?
MR DOWNER: No because foreign visitors are here trying to deal with English – although of course the bulk of them do speak English but not all of them do – but they are dealing with interpreters and people who speak different languages every day of the week. So…
PRESENTER: Looking at the reaction on television…
MR DOWNER: …there’s nothing that unusual about people speaking foreign languages.
PRESENTER: Well speaking Mandarin is unusual and for someone who could potentially be the next Prime Minister. It is a bit like when Tony Blair went to France and spoke fluent French to the French.
MR DOWNER: Well I mean I don’t think it makes any difference to people’s lives, personal lives, their living standards, their jobs or anything.
PRESENTER: Alright, so he is a bit of a show-off,.
7 September 2007, Interview – ABC with Jon Faine

Alexander Downer's comments on Kevin Rudd's use of Mandarin when meeting the President of China were undoubtedly influenced by political point scoring. But the 'show-off' remark suggests that he thinks most Australians don't think that it's a good thing to speak languages other than English. Which, if true, is very sad. It also suggests that he doesn't understand that people's languages mean a lot to them. For many people, their first language does make a huge difference to their lives.

And finally, it suggests perhaps that he doesn't understand why it is VERY important for Australians to speak other languages, for example the national languages of our neighbours such as Indonesian, let alone languages like Tok Pisin, Solomons Pijin, and Bislama which, shockingly, still aren't being taught at universities in Australia. How on earth can we be good peace-keepers if we can't talk to the people who we're supposed to be helping?

The monolingual mindset has had bad effects on Indigenous languages, as it leads to perpetuation of myths. In 2007, in the context of recognition of problems with some Aboriginal children's English, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Malcolm Brough, suggested that Indigenous people don't want their children to learn English.

"Mr Brough said it was a "cop-out" for communities to refuse to learn English because it was not an Aboriginal language, particularly when there were several languages in each community." The Australian, May 25, 2007.

The remarks were echoed by a respected science broadcaster:

"and we've got Aboriginal schools that actually don't teach literacy. And you say well go to this school and they will learn a language that is spoken by a couple of hundred people rather than learning English which is going to be a survival mechanism for the 21st century. " [Norman Swan, ABC Health Report 6 August 2007 in an interview with Professor Fiona Stanley.

In fact, all schools in Australia must teach children English. Bilingual schools are a small minority, and, as their name implies, they teach English. In the Northern Territory in 2007, 119 schools and 70% of Indigenous students are located outside of Alice Springs and Darwin. Only 9-10 schools have bilingual programs (check out the NT Education Department's nice new web-page). Clearly, the failure of Indigenous children to learn English does not rest with bilingual programs.

If we don't attack such myths and misinformation about Indigenous languages and communities, they spread and poison social policy.

I applied Michael's idea of the monolingual mindset in a talk on the perilous state of Indigenous Australian languages, at the excellent Indigenous Languages Conference in Adelaide last September. You can download a less colourful version of the talk here [.pdf]. I'd love comments and notes on errors ... especially as I dabble my toes in demography.. [Jangari 's 'Exodus' post gives some idea of the colour].

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