Enshrining multilingualism: how a landmark languages policy changed Australia

Until about thirty years ago Australia, like many other countries, did not have a formal language policy. Now, multilingualism has become a crucial and defining part of the fabric of society in Australia, along with cultural diversity.

Row of flags from around the world

A world first for a multilingual nation

Spend time in any Australian city, and a Babel of languages will assail you – English, of course, but also Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Hindi, Italian and Greek, among numerous others. Travel to Central Australia, and you’ll hear Warlpiri, Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and a host of other Aboriginal languages.

Multilingualism has become a crucial and defining part of the fabric of society in Australia, along with cultural diversity. Until about thirty years ago Australia, like many other countries, did not have a formal language policy. Language and literacy education, and services such as interpreting and translating, were ad hoc and uncoordinated, with no coherent underlying principles.

The National Policy on Languages, formulated in 1987 and endorsed by both sides of politics, was an important landmark. It was the first comprehensive multilingual policy in the world. Even in non-English speaking settings there were no equivalents.

Widely emulated internationally, including by China and post-apartheid South Africa, the National Policy transformed Australia’s image of itself. Along with the initiatives it spawned, it “changed the Australian nation”, according to The Macquarie Encyclopedia of Australian Events.

Bringing language expertise to policy-making

Developed by one of the country’s foremost language and literacy education experts, Joseph Lo Bianco, the policy was a response to the far-reaching changes brought by post-war migration, as well as a new recognition of Indigenous history and culture, and a crisis in foreign language teaching. Australia’s growing engagement with Asia, the imperative to diversify its exports and Britain’s entry into Europe were also key factors.

The policy marked a turning point in the way Australia officially talked and thought about language and language diversity. It was designed for the whole of society, not only people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. It covered English and adult literacy, Indigenous language rights, multilingual resources and media, community and Asian language programs, translating and interpreting services, language teacher training, sign language and cross-cultural training.

An explicit statement of values to guide language policy and decision-making, it represented a break with the past, when countries either had no policy, or simply reinforced the dominant language. The National Policy led to substantial investment in national- and state-level programs, and to coordination of research, through creation of the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia and thirty-two research nodes across the country.

Lo Bianco established three core principles: English for everyone, as a first, second or foreign language; support for Indigenous languages, including bilingual education for Indigenous children; and a language other than English for everyone.

The policy’s main goals were cultural and intellectual enrichment, social justice and erosion of disadvantage, enhancement of vocational opportunities and foreign trade, and promotion of Australia’s role in the region and the world.

An international legacy

Overseas, it inspired innovative responses to language diversity, including programs fostering peace-building, human rights and social cohesion in conflict zones. Lo Bianco designed and implemented a six-year UNICEF initiative in Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar, involving inclusive and equity-based language education policies.

For the National Policy, he conducted intensive research, identifying language issues in migrant and Indigenous communities and in the worlds of commerce, culture, diplomacy and higher education. His research also involved investigating international comparisons and analysing public policy and feasibility.

Since 1987, as the multicultural landscape has shifted, the policy has been revised and rewritten. However, it remains a foundational document, and as Australia’s cultural and linguistic mix grows ever more complex, its principles will continue to frame the national conversation about language.

Further reading & resources

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