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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 7 November 2015
NEWS 10 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Language learning - taking the fight to Canberra GEORGE ZANGALIS Once again annual reports about the continued decline in the number of students taking Greek, and indeed other ethnic minority languages, as a VCE subject, reflecting as it does the alarming drop in schools that provide some form of LOTE teaching, should be more than a justified cry of anger, despair and calls to the Greek or other communities to do ‘something’ about it, which usually ends with taking up the collection to plug a hole here and there. There are worthwhile campaigns demanding that governments face up to their responsibilities in the teaching of languages, some of which succeeded in national policy changes such as the recent requirement to have Greek and other languages as a must subject in the national curriculum with added funding to confront disadvantage. However, they are not being pursued for implementation with consistency and vigour. In fact, they do not even rate a mention in the language and culture priorities of such large and socio-politically influential communities as the Greek or Chinese communities. While every effort counts, a viable solution will not be found without national and state governments committed to long-term education and multicultural policies. The teaching of ethnic minority and indigenous languages is a matter not only for them to be concerned with, but above all, the whole nation. The brief rejoicing of the Gillard government’s languages policies has been followed by a long period of inaction, huge cuts in education funding and in fact language strangulation, despite a plethora of demagogic multicultural eulogies and even prime-ministerial declarations of undying admiration for this or that ethnic community at particular functions and places of worship, the latest being Malcolm Turnbull’s “proudly Philhellene” declaration. Demand for language learning has been either assisted or hindered by government policies and funding, with the subsequent impact on school capacity to deliver and universities to train teachers. Historically, education - especially humanity subjects, which includes language teaching - are affected first and worst by government education cuts, immediate loss of teachers and dramatic declines in schools offering LOTE, and most certainly students. When the first Howard government in 1998 scraped the Australian National Languages Policy, and the little money that went with it, almost overnight, ethnic minority languages and notably Greek were decimated, dropping by almost 50 per cent in students and schools providing LOTE teaching. This is and remains the main reason for the decline in the teaching of languages, while not overlooking other contributing factors. Is it not abundantly clear that unless languages are taught as a must subject in primary and secondary schools open to students of all ethnic backgrounds, not only will an ever-declining few take it as a VCE subject and university course, but hundreds of thousands, even millions, of students who may not aspire to pursue a university course or choose an ethnic minority language as a VCE subject will be deprived of the opportunity to get as much as possible from their primary and secondary school studies on all subjects? By the way, to get the most in ethnic and culture learning, the national curriculum should include a multicultural subject in English, covering all the facts of Australia’s historical demographic, cultural, linguistic and sociopolitical development in its great indigenous and ethnic diversity. As to the ever-present question of the use value of language learning, the primary reason should not and cannot be ‘commercial’ - as the Victorian Premier is quoted as saying (The Age 11/2015 ‘Andrews dumps language targets’) in suddenly announcing the downgrading of the teaching of Chinese in Australian schools, because we can do business with China in English. We can do ‘business’ with any country in English now, the world’s international language. Does that mean a national/ethnic language, no matter how old and how widely used by people, has no future in the business-dominated world of globalisation? Most certainly not. Language is not a commodity. It is the main means of learning and communication in the multitude of human relationships (including trade) and creativity. It embodies and expresses the total human being individually and collectively. It defines identity. More than any other factor it shapes and is shaped by the evolution of the material and intellectual world and its magnificent sustaining diversity. And in multicultural, polyethnic Australia, the teaching of languages spoken and valued by its citizens is not a luxury, as we have argued and fought for over 60 years, but a right with a myriad of benefits to the nation and its peoples. It is a national responsibility for governments to have and fund long-term policies and programs and that the nation’s schools, the most important places of learning, are given support to develop what we fortunately have in abundance - large pools of living language diversity (nearly half of Australia’s population has at least one parent who is born outside Australia and about half of those no longer have an An- glo Celtic background, as compared to 95 per cent just 60 years ago. They come, in fact, from more than 150 different countries and speak as many languages. It is therefore paramount that whilst we protect and support what we have in community after-hours schools, the top priority for language and culture maintenance and development is to: 1. continually and strongly campaign for government - federal and state - to implement good policies, some of which have already been adopted, and in the first place, the Gonsky National Curriculum Program based on actual school needs, now at the centre of the political and public discourse on education values and government funding. Being a preelection year and the new prime minister’s first budget, now is the time to rally people to demand of parties and politicians to at least put back into education the billions that Abbott took out in the 2014 horror budget. Campaigning for good policies benefiting people in general and ethnic minorities in particular is the uppermost exercising of any citizen’s and indeed community organisation’s democratic right and responsibility; 2. continue to argue and win popular support for the value and benefits to Australia of a long-term and well-funded National Languages Policy; 3. reject and argue against the erroneous view that language is above all a commercial, tool and commodity; 4. challenge policies which ignore the basic fact that the great majority of Greek and other ethnic minority children undergo their education in the government schools and it is there that the big battle for learning, including the teaching of languages, is being determined; 5. study the history of language learning in Australia. especially of the post-WWII period, the role that ethnic communities and other progressive forces in the wider community played in putting on the national and schools’ agendas the teaching of ethnic community languages. My own book Migrant Workers and Ethnic Communities is one publication that tells of what it took to move Australia from a singularly committed monolingual and monocultural state to the road of multiculturalism and multilingualism. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome, the very antithesis of multiculturalism, continues to be expressed in policy and attitudes such as the earlier ‘Australians’ and ‘Aliens’, then ‘Australians’ and ‘Non-English-Speaking Background’ (NESBs), currently Australians and Cultural and Linguistic Diverse Communities (CALDs), or simply ‘Australians’ and ‘Multiculturalists’- a language used by many policy makers and bureaucrats (and unfortunately adopted by many and mostly government-funded ethnic and multicultural organisations and agencies), topped by the changing names and ranking of the Ministry for Immigration, always careful to avoid and obscure any reference to Ethnic and often Multicultural Affairs, and relegating any ‘multicultural’ role to a junior minister. It is not the Greek, Italian, Chinese, etc. communities who are multicultural but Australia as a nation. In addition to the Indigenous people, all other Australians have a dormant or active ethnic background, with the Anglo-Australians forming by far the largest ethnic component of the nation and English being the national language. Then we have another 150-plus ethnic minority people and their communities identifying themselves and popularly recognised as Greek or Greek Australians, Italians, Sinhalese, Chinese ... History teaches us that the rights of ethnic minorities, and indeed the rights of ordinary people, won by sheer sweat, tears and often blood, need eternal vigilance and ongoing struggles to protect against erosion and ensure maintenance and growth. * George Zangalis is president (and a current affairs broadcaster) of Melbourne’s ethnic communities radio station 3ZZZ, and president of the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council of Australia.
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