Lost in Translation

Australia might be multicultural but we are worlds away from being multilingual.

Last month I was at a family wedding in Italy. My mum spoke to her friends in Swiss-German, engaged with other guests in French, conversed with the waiters in Italian, and spoke English to me. She wasn’t the only one who could do this. In fact 85% of the guests were not only bilingual or trilingual, but able to speak four languages. Even my 15-year-old cousin can speak three languages (yeah…way to make me look bad in front of the whole family).

Then there was me… awkwardly trying to navigate my way through Europe saying ‘excuse me.. do you speak English?’ feeling like a total fool. Pathetic, right?

The main difference between my mum, her family, and everyone at that wedding is that they are all Swiss. Australia might be the second most multicultural country in the world, but Switzerland takes first place so why are our language skills so different?

Languages are not considered important in Australia and that’s the bottom line.

So, what’s our problem?

Australia has been described as the ‘most monolingual industrialised nation in the world’… it may seem harsh but it’s true. The issue in Australia is our attitude. The learner’s attitude is acknowledged as one of the most important factors that impacts on learning a language.

The problem is that we have a cultural issue, termed the ‘Monolingual Mindset’, suggesting it is difficult for all English-speaking countries to value intercultural communication. Most Australian monoglots expect newly arrived migrants, tourists and students to learn and communicate in English. For many Aussies, monolingualism has become the norm. In fact, the amount of times my friends have said they don’t need to learn another language because everyone speaks English is astounding.

Aussie’s just don’t have the motivation despite having the opportunity. Motivation to learn a second language is a complex phenomenon – it’s just not the same as learning maths or science. If someone needs to speak another language in a wide range of social situations or fulfil professional ambitions, then they will perceive the communicative value of the second language and be more motivated to learn it.

In the land down under, the lack of motivation makes sense. We are so isolated that we can easily blame the difficulty in becoming bilingual on convenience.  Our location in the world has been called a reason why Australian students don’t have languages reinforced throughout school, like European students.

Language learning at school

About 10% of all students study a foreign language in year 12. About 20% of the population speaks a language other  than English at home, so it just shows that there is there is little connection between the languages taught in schools, and the languages spoken in homes.

I’m sure you can all remember learning a little bit of French or Spanish throughout school. I’m sure you can also remember furiously typing homework answers into Google Translate before class or looking up how to ask to go to the bathroom in that language (yes, that is the only phrase I remember in French). It’s safe to say that Google Translate is not a substitute for learning a language. Unfortunately, aside from our personal disregard of the opportunity we were given, we also can say it wasn’t our fault.

The Government recommendeds that students in non-immersion programs receive up to three hours per week of language class. However, studies have found that three hours isn’t enough. It takes up to seven years of continuous practice to become fluent in a second language. Many schools don’t (and can’t) offer comprehensive language teaching to students and often languages aren’t even offered all the way from primary school to grade 12.

It truly says a lot about the Australian public and Governments attitudes towards learning a second language; they just don’t see the importance of it.

What is the point?

Aside from being able to speak another language (which is super impressive if you ask me), there are also a tonne of benefits both for personal and professional reasons.

Multilingualism is in high demand in many industries in Australia and around the world. We’re living in an extremely globalised world and knowing a foreign language can really assist you in your career. It shows that you are accepting of the culture and tradition of others, which in turn can help you tap into opportunities for diversified business and networking.

Remember back in the Kevin 07 days when K Rudd greatly impressed China’s then PM, Hu Jintao by speaking fluent Mandarin to him and his delegates. Our ex-PM managed to crack jokes in Mandarin and Mr Hu complimented Kev on his fluency and thanked him for his commitment to developing the Australia-China relationship.


Of course, while its all well and good learning a second language to push you further in your career, it’s also extremely beneficial for self-development. Psychological studies have found that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process – it improves your memory, helps delay dementia, it increases your attention span and speaking a second language can literally help you speak your mother tongue better! The benefits are so convincing it’s shocking how truly unmotivated we are to broaden our minds.

Looking into the future

Unfortunately the lack of ambition that Aussie’s have towards learning a second language has been declining. The future of languages other than English in Australia does not look bright and will remain strongly monolingual unless something drastically changes. It seems that bilingual people will become harder and harder to find, and why?

Because we just couldn’t be bothered.


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