Speech about the importance of community language schools in maintaining heritage and language

It’s a pleasure to be here to support the Ethnic Schools Association Queensland as you mark 17 years. As always, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

I understand that our country has more than 1,000 community language schools, which provide language maintenance in 69 languages to in excess of 100,000 school age children. That’s a remarkable achievement, and an important one.

Australia is a truly multicultural and diverse society. Our nation is richer for its multiculturalism.

The importance of community language schools in maintaining heritage and language.

Speech to the Ethnic Schools Association of Queensland AGM, 1 April 2014

 

Thank you Irene. I acknowledge you and Revathi and your committee, as well as distinguished guests and members one and all.

It’s a pleasure to be here to support the Ethnic Schools Association Queensland as you mark 17 years. As always, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we gather, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

I understand that our country has more than 1,000 community language schools, which provide language maintenance in 69 languages to in excess of 100,000 school age children. That’s a remarkable achievement, and an important one.

Australia is a truly multicultural and diverse society. Our nation is richer for its multiculturalism.

Labor supports multiculturalism. Our national platform states:

Australia is an inclusive and multicultural country. Labor upholds these values. Labor recognises the economic and social contribution that has been made by immigrants and refugees throughout our nation’s history. Labor regards Australia’s diversity as a source of national strength and a critical factor in nation-building. Labor believes in the power of a multicultural society, underpinned by our citizenship process and respect of Australian values. Labor supports a multicultural society and will maintain non-discriminatory migration policies and respect the heritage and customs of migrants.

And:

Labor promotes, celebrates and values the social, cultural and economic benefits a multicultural society delivers to all Australians.

And:

Australia is and will remain a society of people drawn from a rich variety of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. Australia is and will remain a multicultural society.

We have unfortunately seen, most recently on our national stage, a move that I believe is not helpful to multiculturalism and understanding.

The Attorney-General has published an exposure draft of a bill to amend the anti-hate speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act.

For almost 20 years sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act have given people the right not to be subjected to racist hate speech and bigotry – in relation to their the race, colour or national or ethnic origin. But the Abbott government is considering changing these important protections so much as to render them useless for practical purposes. If you are interested, I urge you to make a submission in relation to the exposure draft of the bill.

Like my Labor colleagues, I believe that communication is fundamental to making sure that Australians, old and new, can live side by side with mutual respect. More than that, communication allows us to better understand each other, and in doing so, to better enjoy living in the same nation and learning from each other.

I know that Stephen Romaniw of Community Languages Australia was to be here tonight. I like what Community Languages Australia has to say:

By giving the public the opportunity to freely enjoy and celebrate Australia’s multiculturalism, ethnic language centers contribute to the communal spirit of Australian life, in which cultures and ethnicities can co-exist in a relationship that is mutually beneficial and respectful.

Learning and sharing languages helps with understanding. It helps with cohesion. It helps with inclusion.

An American English-as-a-second-language teacher, Pamela L. Anderson-Mejías, has written:

“The heritage language, that which is used by the parents and ancestors heavily or exclusively at home, and which is usually native to the students, serves to connect the students with their culture while living within another, majority language community and culture.”

The NSW government’s program Racism – No Way describes the significance of heritage languages:

Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved.

The program quotes the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, at Kakadu, as saying:

Language is fundamental to cultural identity. This is so for people everywhere. For Bininj, their unique world is expressed in their language. For this reason, it is important that people keep their own language alive.

That’s a beautiful way of expressing the importance of language. It suggests that if a language is lost, then in a real way, a culture’s world is also lost. We all understand our worlds through the prism of language.

In their important paper The Importance of Literacy in the Home Language: The View From Australia –with which I’m sure you are much more familiar than I, Susana A. Eisenchlas, Andrea C. Schalley, Diana Guillemin say:

Australia, a country intensely populated by migrants from the 18th century onward, is still one of the strongest targets of migration. According to the 2011 Census, almost 6 million migrants born in more than 200 countries now live in the country.

While migrants from English-speaking countries (e.g., the United Kingdom and New Zealand) are still the largest group of overseas-born residents, 19% of the Australian population over 5 years of age speaks languages other than English at home.

Almost half (49%) of longer-standing migrants and 67% of recent arrivals speak a language other than English at home.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this process is the presence in the classroom of students acquiring English as a second language while having to cope with the academic demands of a new curriculum. In some geographical areas (e.g., Logan Central, Queensland), up to 70% of the state school’s population are from non-English-speaking homes.

About 30% of these children cannot read or write in their first language and experience difficulties in the transition to a new educational system in a language yet to be mastered.

Their paper focuses on empirical research that, as they say, “has extensively documented the many educational, social, and affective advantages of developing literacy in the home language and, conversely, the detrimental effects of home-language-literacy neglect.”

Among the many advantages they speak of, they talk about the advantage to the nation:

While advanced foreign-language proficiency is seen as a valuable resource to the nation and as an imperative in the age of globalization, foreign language studies in Australia are mostly relegated to the Higher Education level.

As a result of the late start, very few learners acquire languages to a level at which they can operate effectively across languages and cultures.

Paradoxically, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who could potentially fill Australia’s linguistic needs, are ignored, thus lost to the system.

Clyne refers to this process as a “squandering” of language resources.

As many of these children shift into the dominant language, their home language deteriorates to a stage where only passive comprehension and minimal production skills are retained.

Cummins poignantly characterizes the current situation as a “bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers”.

In light of this, it suggests itself that fostering the home language and its literacy development would not only be hugely beneficial to the children and families involved but also result in an invaluable gain for the nation and society as a whole.

For all of those important reasons, and others, heritage language instruction is important. Labor understands the need for heritage languages to be taught and to be maintained.

That’s why before the federal election Labor made clear its support for community language schools.

At the time, Bill Shorten said that a re-elected Labor Government would invest $6 million over four years in community language schools to enhance and increase access to quality language education in Australia.

He said that if our young people are to engage and compete on the international stage, continuous access to language education must be supported at the community level.

In announcing our support, federal Labor recognised the importance of supporting all language education and ensuring the maintenance of heritage languages and links to culture.

Bill said that the funding would be used for teacher professional development and will provide community language teachers the opportunity to obtain a Certificate IV in teaching and assessment. This will improve the quality of teaching and enhance the learning experience at these schools.

The funding would also be used for extra teaching resources, such as textbooks, and will increase access for students to community language courses in key languages.

As Bill said, Federal Labor wants to see Australia seize the Asian Century by ensuring our children are learning the languages of our region and also retaining the language of their heritage.

We have yet to see the same appreciation for community language schools from the new Abbott government.

Having said that, I remain optimistic that community leaders, including political leaders from all parts of the political spectrum, will acknowledge the importance of heritage languages.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak, and I wish you well.

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