When it comes to Language learning in Australia, it seems that the most common language being practised and used regularly is the “language of justification”. Whether it is politicians, language advocates, teachers or students, we all find ourselves at some point using this language in our attempts to further the cause of languages education. But what exactly is a “language of justification” and why does it matter?

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                    The Impact of Language Learning (Photo: ICDC College)

The language of justification is what emerges when a society’s overarching attitude towards languages is governed by what Michael Clyne calls a “monolingual mindset”. In such a society, the existence of a single and dominant language is seen as desirable, natural and vital to the maintenance of that society. The acquisition, study and existence of any other language is therefore viewed not as something which is intrinsically valuable to that society, but as something that needs to be justified in terms of the goals and rationales of the monolingual society.

The fragility of Australian languages education, combined with the prevalence of a monolingual mindset, has meant that those working in the field have found themselves repeatedly having to justify language-learning according to the rationales of public discourse. In Australia, this discourse has tended to focus on the economy, jobs, security and globalisation as justifying the learning of languages. Such a discourse serves to damage, rather than promote quality languages education and policy.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of the “language of justification” in action. At the political level, Lo Bianco and Slaughter have described changes to languages policy over the past few decades as a “policy parade”, moving through phases of being “ambitiously multicultural” to “energetically Asian” and more recently to being “fundamentally economic”. This view of languages seeks to publicly promote and justify language learning in terms of changing economic imperatives.

Meanwhile at the level of school curriculum the very language that is used to discuss education policy positions English as the superior and desired literacy standard, presenting all other languages as “additions” to this standard. While the Languages Curriculum is often accompanied by lengthy rationales, subjects such as English and Maths are explicitly described as “fundamental” for primary school learning, over and above Languages. In some parts of Australia, languages have been removed from the curriculum altogether in order to build literacy in English. The attitude that underpins such decisions carries misconceptions about the role of languages in building literacy in English, and in learning more generally. Any potential discourse about the transformative value of languages in education is therefore stifled by the need to “justify” language-learning.

At the school level, many of us would have been exposed to arguments about the benefits of language learning to future career prospects and aspirations. Those who have “mastered” a second language to help advance their career prospects are held in high esteem in society and within language-teaching communities. Without having to test the validity of these arguments, we can see that they subject discussions of language to economic justification. Hence, while the intentions of language students and educators are no doubt good, discourses within these communities can actually serve to reinforce monolingual mindsets.

It is clear that the monolingual mindset governs the way in which languages education is viewed, discussed and promoted in Australia. This is obviously a hard dilemma to escape, because in order to alter monolingual mindsets, vulnerable language programs and advocate communities must first appeal to them in some way that will be understood. It is possible, however, to avoid the language of justification- if not in the things we do, then in the very language we use to promote learning Indonesian, English, Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Japanese, or any other language.

First and foremost, we must seek out opportunities to establish independent discourses about languages. We must seek to demystify the skill of language learning by raising awareness of the many and varying reasons for language-learning, as well as the diversity of language-speaking communities within Australia. We are languages advocates living and working in a multilingual society with a monolingual mindset. Our discourses must acknowledge and embrace Language acquisition as something natural and achievable for everyone, not merely as some sort of “complementary” addition to an English-speaking Australia. Only then can we hope to escape the monolingual language of justification.