Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing)


Thor May
Brisbane 2013





Abstract: The argument I will develop in this essay is that the foreign students are a latent human resource who can assist with overcoming English monolingualism in the Australian population. Foreign students, properly rewarded, can be a major source of skills transfer. Every one of those students is a walking compendium of language and cultural skills that Australians need to know.






Nations which have English as a dominant mother tongue are often accused of foolish monolingualism. There are populations in other languages which are also monolingual for a variety of reasons, although multilingualism has been and remains the most common worldwide pattern. At this point in history however, English monolingualism is especially resistant to challenge, and will be at the core of this discussion.


Anglo-cultures nourish a widely accepted social meme which disparages language learning. The strong form of this meme is “we can’t learn foreign languages”, and the weaker variant, “it is a waste of time to learn foreign languages because everyone speaks English”. The supporting rationale to the weak form of rejection is that “if we need interpreting/translation there are plenty of people in this country who can do it”.


It is not difficult to disprove the hopeless “we can’t learn...” attitude. However it has proved very difficult to challenge the “language learning is a waste of time” attitude, partly because most Anglo-countries now do have large immigrant populations which are a useful source of language skills for at least one generation. The challenge is also difficult because “waste of time” in the end is a measurement of cultural value, and only incidentally a measure of economic value.


The real importance of reversing the multilingual-immigrant => monolingual-descendant pattern is that human societies are mixing and blending at an ever increasing rate, whole populations and professions are world-mobile, yet the several thousand other world languages beside English are not going to disappear any time soon. For Anglo speakers to simply believe that they are immune from linguistic competition in a multi-polar world is delusional. They are setting themselves up for the status of second-class world citizens....


Well yes, but you can’t sell arguments about tomorrow’s cultural tornadoes to Bruce and Tracey on the street out there. They want it all, here and now, not in never-never land. To shift Anglo speakers onto the language learning escalator, if it is worthwhile, needs a very cunning and persistent marketing effort – perhaps even engaging the sort of sly talents which have made washing machines, toothpaste and TVs into “necessities”. However, creating an imagined need for toothpaste is a very simple marketing exercise compared to fostering an imagined need for amorphous and mutating mind stuff like language. This is a home truth mostly not grasped by the present generation of educational managers, let alone their political masters.


At a personal level, day by day, supposedly needed consumer items are bought rather than sold. Regardless of how customers are manipulated, each buyer believes in her heart of hearts that she is making autonomous decisions. Ergo with that strange commodity we call an acquired language: the moment by moment growth of new language skill is a private learning choice, not a public teaching decision. That is why compulsory classroom courses worldwide tend to be such brutally unproductive learning venues.   


Australia is a pre-eminent example of Anglo monolingualism. Since the writer is Australian, what follows is one very rough-hewn suggestion for coaxing at least a percentage of Australians out of their language comfort zones. Readers from other latitudes may of course adapt the arguments to follow for their own environments. This particular Australian-oriented essay is as much concerned with changing the Anglo cultural belief system about other languages as about the spread of personal competencies in L2. Therefore it focuses on young adults rather than young children (who are ideal language learners, but subject to the whims of their parents’ prejudices). Everyone understands a bargain, so let’s talk about a grand bargain. Firstly however, it will be necessary to identify what we actually have available to buy and sell.


Australia makes around $16 billion a year from overseas students. This is admittedly a rubbery statistic. The sum may be larger if we include all student-related spending injected into the economy, or less if narrower criteria favoured by some researchers is used. In any case, it is a tidy sum of money, lucky cash for a lucky country. But are Australians really being smart about the whole foreign student deal, or is there scope for another kind of arbitrage?


The enterprise of teaching foreign students in Australia began a generation ago as a form of foreign aid, a skills transfer whose return for Australia was supposed to be some form of long term goodwill. Sometimes that investment paid off, and sometimes it didn’t.


The foreign student transaction in 2013 involves a radically different calculation by politicians and Australian institutional managers. Essentially, it is a smash and grab raid on the bank accounts of supposedly rich Asians. Australian universities and colleges have been restructured as crude marketing machines driven by dollar turnover rather than the intangible stuff we call character development and learning. This in itself is a big topic, and not the main point of the essay.


The argument I will develop in this essay is that the foreign students are a latent human resource who can assist with overcoming English monolingualism in the Australian population. Foreign students, properly rewarded, can be a major source of skills transfer. Every one of those students is a walking compendium of language and cultural skills that Australians need to know.


First Japan, then South Korea and now China have hauled themselves up by the bootstraps not simply by becoming manufacturing sources based on cheap labour, but by obtaining transfers of technical skills and knowledge. Now they have moved to the point of being technical innovators (especially Japan) in increasingly high cost economies. The yellow brick road to that success has been at least a modicum of foreign language competence by key segments of their populations. They had to learn English because the Anglos weren't going to learn their languages.


The language key for North East Asians hasn't come easily, and particularly for fiercely monocultural Japanese and Koreans, continues to give extreme trouble. Nevertheless they have done it up to a point by sheer brute persistence. China is a slightly different proposition. For all its monolithic front to the outside world, the Chinese empire is a mosaic of languages and cultures, Han varieties and otherwise. There is evidence that even today almost half of Chinese citizens, the still often poverty stricken underclasses, do not properly understand the national language. In practical terms then, any educated mainland Chinese citizen already has to slosh about in a soup of spoken dialects and (usually Sinitic) languages. It has always been thus. This will probably mean over time, as it has in India, that very large numbers of Chinese will feel fairly comfortable slipping on an English language cloak when the need arises.


The monolingualism of Anglo Australians is not based on the kind of tribal exclusivism which is such a barrier for Koreans and Japanese. It is however also culturally sourced. Anglo Australian culture has a certain lackadaisical quality which is nourished, when it comes to language learning, by the confidence that you are not going to be shot at dawn for failing to speak the tongues of outer barbarians. If Australia ever became, heaven help us, a vassal state of China (for example), you can bet that besides resistance heroes fighting the invaders off from bush hideouts, there would be a sudden blossoming of foreign language competence amongst ambitious middle class Australian youth.


So short of foreign invasion, how can Australians get the multilingual smarts? Well, I have suggested that it won't happen without a big change in the culture, and cultural changes are usually wrenching. Sometimes they are engineered though, and not only for buying toothpaste.


The Australian cultural paradigm which I knew as a child is vanishing fast, and it has been a deliberate process of change. In 1947, the Australian ethnic heritage was about 90% sourced from England, Scotland and Ireland. In 1947 Australia’s then foreign minister Arthur Caldwell promised the Australian parliament that “we will never have a chocolate coloured Australia”. Caldwell himself was a complex man who initiated Australia’s first major immigration program. By 1999 the Anglo-Celtic ratio had fallen to 69.8%, and continues to fall. Multiculturalism has been sold with impressive overall success; (yes, of course there are some tensions, but they are not seriously destructive). This was a wrenching change indeed, but after all, change has been the only constant since the industrial revolution took hold. If we can alter the very ethnic fabric of Australia so drastically within a generation, we can also alter the ways in which foreign languages are viewed.


The track to persuading Bruce and Tracey that they need skills in another language would have to include rewards for surviving the distance. The rewards might be money, but they might also be status, or fashion approval, or mobility, or jobs, or a dozen other things. However, the rewards need to be powerful, frequent, addictive and widely understood. Rewards need to be both short term and long term. This is going to be tough since many of Australia's opinion leaders are also failed language learners. My instinct is that a direct assault on that battalion of beer bellies is sure to fail. They have to be outflanked.


All of which brings us back to the $16 billion army of foreign students bearing gifts. They have the languages and cultural knowledge which Australia needs. However they are paying an inflated price for Australian qualifications taught in the English language. Can't we cut a deal here? Can’t we arrange some reverse language transfer?


OK, a language speaker does not a natural language teacher make. This is a professional English language teacher writing. He is part of a profession which is considered a fake profession without status, security or a reliable income, since the common wisdom is that anybody who speaks English can teach it, until they go back to their real job of flipping hamburgers. I happen to know that professionally competent language teachers are far more productive than amateurs who are just making a dollar on the side. But as a tertiary teacher with thirty-five years of experience, twelve in South Korea and China, it would be churlish not to admit that a determined language learner can succeed with almost any kind of help, and sometimes with none.


Most East Asian learners have been forced to put up with amateur foreigner teachers plus often less than inspired or competent local teachers, yet a significant number of them acquire enough English to enter Australian institutions.


Let's make a proposal. Thousands of foreign students in Australia are forced to hunt for unskilled jobs to support their studies. This unskilled work is a dubious contribution to Australia's needs - we have our own masses of unskilled, underemployed workers. Such work is often demoralizing for the students, and a poor use of their natural aptitudes.


Can't we set up an intelligently planned pilot program to twin some of these foreign students in an exchange with Australians who are willing to learn their languages? The Australian would become a cultural mentor in local ways while the foreign student would become a language mentor in his or her mother tongue. Three or four Australians could be matched with one or two foreign students. A purpose-designed social internet site could offer co-ordination, guidance and professional language evaluation to oversee the whole process.


If the engine to drive this exchange were just goodwill, it probably wouldn't survive for long. There would have to be a framework of coaching in how to teach and how to learn. But above all there would have to be a financial incentive.


For the foreign students, for example, the visa regulations could be changed to allow a category with ten hours of permitted part time work weekly in combination with ten hours of accredited coaching. The present regulations allow twenty hours weekly of unspecified labour. The coaching concept might be to co-funded, say dollar for conventionally earned dollar. The co-funding would come from a sponsor ( .. the government? White knight foundation? Grant or loan?).


For the Australians, they could be forgiven stepped levels of their HECS debt for meeting defined language learning goals. (HECS is a government tuition loan scheme, with repayment through a small percentage addition to income tax, and delayed until earnings reach a certain level). That would certainly focus Australian student minds.


Funding such amateur language coaching would be an investment for Australia, provided specific learning outcomes were assessed honestly by professional language teachers. On graduation, the successful learners might also be helped with work experience internships in countries of the target language.


Anyone familiar with the current state of formal language teaching and learning in Australia knows that things are rather dire. The paradigm has to change. Of those Australians who do begin to learn a foreign language in institutions, most drop out unless they are from immigrant families where that foreign language is also their parent’s home language. The universe of private learning via Internet communities offers new opportunities to those with the drive and motivation, but is unlikely to empower most of those who have not been socialized into “needing” new language: the Anglo-Celtic holdouts.  


A financially incentivized mentoring community of young Australians and foreign students is just one suggestion for prodding a redirection of cultural language habits. Objections are easy to anticipate. For example, it could be expected that second generation Australians with a family link to their parent’s cultures might also be attracted to a mentoring program along with the doggedly monolingual Anglo-Celtic natives. However, that would not be such a bad thing either since the generational loss of language skills amongst immigrant descendants is usually rapid. The mentoring program in this case would be maintaining a language asset for the Australian community.


There are many reasons for Anglo-Australia’s extreme monolingualism, but the bottom line is that learning incentives fail. Language learning is a highly personal, time consuming process, and institutions are inherently bad at nurturing personal needs.


It may well be that the personal bonding between small groups of Australians and foreign students, sweetened with a bit of external funding, could provide just the combination of  warmth and obligation needed for language learning takeoff in an overwhelmingly monolingual culture.




Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  



All opinions expressed here are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


Monolingualism and How to Fix It (if it needs fixing) ©Thor May 2013; all rights reserved