In the last few years, the conversation around asylum seekers, migrants and their language needs have escalated, with recent Australian legislative initiatives around citizenship that have toughened language requirements. For newly arrived Greek migrants and their children, one of the biggest obstacles to feeling included into the Australian society is language proficiency. Linguist Professor John Hajek shared his advice on how migrants and their children can adapt to bilingual environments and spoke openly about Australian’s language policy and its key challenges. He also discussed the ways Greek governments can address the linguistic needs of the asylum seekers that have been reaching the country’s shores in the last few years, by analysing the Australian experience.
[In 1903, the Prime Minister Alfred Deakin defended the “White Australia Policy”. Between the 1960s – 1970s new migrants were expected to assimilate into Australian society and leave their languages and cultures behind. In the late 1970s there was some consideration about the role of “migrant” languages in schools and some support around the notion that migrants’ languages could be included in the curriculum, while Australia started the discourse around “languages other than English versus (LOTE) ‘community languages'”.] How is the discourse around language learning framed in Australia today?
There is national agreement among federal and state governments in Australia that language learning is one of eight so called key learning areas that all children should have exposure to – alongside English, mathematics and other subjects. This was established in 2008 with the Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians. However, what that means in practice is different thing. The age at which children start learning a language and how many hours of language education they should have is not fixed nationally. States can make their own policies. Victoria probably has the strongest system – all children are expected to learn a language from the start of primary school to year 10 by 2025.
[In one of your papers, you mention that in “Australia there are more than 120 languages been taught in some kind of educational program. You also mention that in Victoria, Australia, in 2011, over 60 languages were studied in formal educational contexts, although over 80 per cent of students undertaking language study learnt Italian, Japanese, Indonesian, French or Chinese”. However you have repeatedly referred to the “Anglobubble” and persistence of a monolingual culture].
Could you tell me more about Australia’s current mentality around language learning, considering the country’s “Anglobubble” and monolingual culture”. It is true, that language programs in secondary schools have fallen by 10.1 per cent, between 2002 and 2011, and enrolments have declined with this?
Nationally we know there is a challenge. Federal politicians have talked about this for some time, noting how today only 12 per cent of Year 12 students undertake language study when in the 1960s it was 40 per cent. The figures you refer to are based on Victorian government reporting. As a result of this decline the Victorian Department of Education and Training in recent times has tried to reverse this trend and most schools now teach a language. One challenge that remains is how much time children spend actually learning a language in class every week. The current Victorian recommendation is 150 minutes of class time per week – but many schools – especially in the primary sector – offer much less e.g. one 50 minute lesson.
[In the lecture organised by LaTrobe University you mentioned that the “success of intergenerational language transmission differs significantly across language groups”. You also mentioned that the Greek community has been more successful than the Italian one in maintaining local intergenerational language transmission]. Can you elaborate? How successful has the Greek community been in maintaining local intergenerational language transmission?
We looked at the history of language education – especially of Greek and Italian – in Victoria. The Greek community has made greater efforts to educate Greek-heritage children specifically, especially through community language schools – in order to support language maintenance. The Greek government has supported this activity with considerable resourcing in the past, e.g. materials, and teachers.
The Italian community decided to open Italian language teaching to everyone – which means beginners level Italian for everyone – including children of Italian descent who might speak Italian already.
In a 2015 study, we compared patterns of language education and maintenance in the Italian and Greek communities. We noted that while the Italian-speaking community in Victoria is traditionally bigger than the Greek one, the numbers of young speakers (0-14 years) of Greek is much greater.
Languages face many challenges in terms of enrolments and students’ motivation to undertake language classes in Year 12. In the La Trobe conference, you mentioned some initiatives that can motivate students. What techniques can be used to persuade students to attend language classes?
This is a hard question as there are many challenges. But any techniques we use to generate interest should be positive. It should not be seen as an obligation but as something engaging and valuable. Students have lots of options they can choose from at school. Students are often discouraged, especially at higher year levels, because they are often told they may be penalised in scoring for doing a language (including Greek) at VCE. Some universities have responded by offering a small bonus to entry marks for languages. An immersion experience in Greece is also helpful – in strengthening bonds with Greece and improving language skills, and showing young Greek Australians that Greek is not just something used in the family to communicate with relatives. If they are free to explore Greece and use Greek in everyday situations, they can easily see how valuable it is.
In the last seven- eight years, Greece has been experiencing one of its most difficult moments due to a severe austerity crisis. As a result, a large number of Greeks have migrated to Australia in search of a better future. Many Greek parents choose to take their children to Greek schools in order to maintain the identity of their country of origin, but we know that some of these children often struggle with their English. What advice can you give to parents regarding children’s language adaptations to bilingual environments?
It is important for families to speak their language at home – it is a bridge between generations, and a second language helps children in so many ways. Parents’ mother tongue should be seen as a gift to pass on to children – in addition to English everyone learns in Australia. We also know that different generations (e.g. grandparents and grandchildren) develop stronger bonds when communicating in Greek. What happens when the Greek-speaking yayá can’t speak to her grandchildren and they can’t speak back to her?
But there are other benefits. Learning how to read and write in Greek for instance can help children with their reading and writing in English. Once you have learnt how to use an alphabet (even if it’s a different one), you know the mechanics of reading and writing. It’s easy then to learn the English alphabet, and transfer those skills. In addition, Greek also has a more consistent spelling system than English – this means that students can move to read more quickly than in English, as they don’t get stuck on spelling confusions, like the ‘gh’ sound in the English language which is pronounced differently in the words ‘cough’ and ‘through’.
[Parallel to the austerity crisis, Greece has had to deal with an important wave, influx of humanitarian refugees and migrants that come from countries that are either in a state of war and/or violate human rights. During these last 2 years most of the government’s efforts were targeted towards ensuring their settlement. It is presumed that in the next few years, the government’s efforts and policies will be more directed towards their social, cultural and political inclusion.] As language policy academic, what steps should the Greek governments take in order to support the integration of young immigrant children and their parents’ needs for the labor market?
In Australia, in the 1950s and 1960s, migrants were encouraged to lose their languages as soon as possible. Eventually, we learnt that there was no need to force children to give up their mother tongue (otherwise we wouldn’t have Greek-speaking children in Melbourne today!). People are capable of speaking more than one language and being very successful in life and contributing to the new society they live in. So our governments started encouraging the establishment of afterhours language schools) – which are still an important feature of the Greek community in Australia. These schools maintain family links but also support integration into the new country as they learn English during the day in a mainstream school. Bilingual Greek Australians are very lucky as a result. Greek Australians are well integrated and links with Greece are maintained at the same time – something Greece sees as very important. Obviously, governments should also provide adequate language teaching to arriving adults and children in English if coming to Australia. In Greece, governments should continue offering adequate language teaching in the Greek language for people arriving to Greece. People need the necessary language skills to integrate into work, school and society.
[Today, we are witnessing a phenomenon of xenophobia, violation of human rights, unequal access. In Europe, the rise of extreme populist right movements is alarming. At the same time, we are observing that many European states are emphasising the need for language and cultural requirements to acquire citizenship. Australia’s most legislation on citizenship made it more difficult to obtain citizenship by toughening the language requirements. This, trend has led to discussions about the end of multiculturalism and the beginning of a new era of assimilation policies.] How do you feel about Australia’s decision to toughen the language requirements for obtaining a citizenship and the conversation around assimilation policies?
Of course we want everyone to speak English in Australia – this makes it easier for people to find work, and to talk to each other etc. It doesn’t mean they have to give up their languages. If that were the case we wouldn’t have the large Greek-speaking community which has contributed so much to Australia in the past and continues to do so today. If governments want to test people’s knowledge of language, they should make sure they test what is appropriate for working in day to day life, e.g. language skills for getting a normal job, not writing academic books.
Professor John Hajek is a Professor of Italian and a linguist in the School of Languages and Linguistics. He has held research fellowships in the UK and Australia and is currently the director of RUMACCC (Research Unit for Multilingualism and Cross-cultural Communication) and the first president of LCNAU (Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities). In 2016, Professor Hajek was the keynote speaker in the 13th Biennial Conference of Modern Greek Studies that was organised by the Modern Greek Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand.
Μaria Filio Tridimas is a sociologist. Immigration policies, inclusion and migrant education are some of her main interests. She has studied Human Rights, European Studies and International Relations and Educational Policy at the University of Warwick (UK) and University of Athens (Greece). She is responsible for the design and coordination of the educational initiative “Melbourne – Athens: A Journey of Friendship” that was implemented by the Greek Community of Melbourne’s Language and Culture Schools in collaboration with the Hellenic American Educational Foundation (HAEF) (Psychico College). She has worked as a sociology teacher and as a project coordinator in initiatives funded by the European Union, on disability education and inclusion.