Thursday, February 09, 2006

Should Australia become officially bilingual?

In the last decade or so, Australia has become a de facto bilingual country. While English remains the predominant – and sole official, although there are cracks appearing in this policy (see below) – language, written and spoken Chinese is now more pervasive than any minority language has been since Australia’s annexation by England. (“Chinese” here is used to mean both the monoform written language and the plurality of spoken languages and dialects – while this may thus seem to necessarily require multi-lingualism, a large measure of official bilingualism does rest with the written word.)

My prompt for this post came from browsing the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission website which has (what I’m guessing is) the organisation’s name in Chinese embedded in its top banner, along with the Australian coat of arms and the ACCC’s logo. This bilingual naming of a government agency would not seem to be officially sanctioned, or even widespread. Austrade’s website, for example, does not follow the ACCC approach.

Official, mandatory bilingualism, as Canada’s case shows, can be Orwellian over-zealous and annoyingly petty at the same time. Worst of all, though, with a majority-Anglophone/minority-Francophone population split that roughly parallels Australia’s non-Chinese/Chinese numbers, three decades of the policy have seemingly hardened Francophone’s sense of a separate identity. While there are cogent reasons why the experience of Canada’s Francophones can’t be easily extrapolated to Australia’s Chinese (geography, for one: the former are highly concentrated in Quebec province), it is clear that in terms of the raison d’etre of Canadian bilingualism – bringing majority and minority together – it has been a manifest failure.

OTOH, unofficial bilingualism, as Australia is pursuing currently, seems to me to be a cop-out. I am surprised by the complete absence (AFAICT) of academic/OpEd discussion of language policy in Australia. (Another eloquent ruin of boomer policy-making: multiculturalism – largely premised on poly-lingual service delivery to marginalized first-generation migrant NESBs – contain(s)/ed a large measure of unwittingly-planned obsolescence, meaning that it has long since become an empty charade for the employment and empire-building of boomers).

Perhaps there is a happy middle-way here; if so, it plainly necessitates, at the very least, many more non-Chinese Australians to be acquiring the Chinese language than are presently so doing. But since there’s nothing to gain for boomers in this – unlike, say, the house-price inflation windfall that large-scale migration of the relatively cashed-up has inevitably brought – I can’t see it really happening.

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