Brief Outline of the Australian Language Policy Experience

Joseph Lo Bianco, AM (Ph. D), Chief Executive Language Australia

General background information to accompany panel discussion at the US Federal Interagency Language Roundtable, to be held at the George P. Schultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center, 25 October 2002 on:

Consideration of Elements of National Language Policy Joseph Lo Bianco, AM (Ph. D) Chief Executive Language Australia

Visiting and Adjunct Professor, Education University of Melbourne, Language and Comparative Cultural Studies, Queensland 2002-2003 Charles A. Ferguson Fellow, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington DC


In relation to language and literacy planning Australia and the United States are alike in some important respects. Both are English-speaking nations with vast multilingual populations. This multi-lingualism is a consequence of both immigration, new and old, and of remarkably diverse indigenous language traditions. Both countries share a tradition of neglect of their multi-lingual heritage but both nations have also come to a realization that properly cultivated language diversity can constitute a capability resource of vast importance for the cultural vitality, economic interests, and national geo-political, strategic and security needs.

Although the policy-making traditions of the two societies vary there are also some overriding patterns that are common. Both are Federal states in which education is principally a responsibility vested to state jurisdictions. The democratic and open-society traditions of both countries also mean that there has been substantial growth of civil-society institutions for cultivating the linguistic diversity of the populations. The immediate consequence of these two considerations is that unlike the language planning of more centralized political systems (such as Japan, France and to some extent even the UK) Australia and America need to undertake language planning that devotes a high degree of attention to negotiated agreements with dispersed jurisdictions that preserve relatively autonomous authority. In turn this means that effective language policy must ultimately adopt a cooperative character.

It has been widely recognized that Australia is unique among English dominant nations for its efforts to develop a comprehensive approach to language and literacy policy. In our experience this has proved very productive. The break-through in national language policy depended on the collaborative evolution of broad statements of principle, the specification of these into programs of action, and the establishment of monitoring institutions, research oversight and educated public expectations of achievement. We have tended to eschew legal mandates and concentrate on persuasive discourse as well as Federal inducements via financial incentives.

Some of the achievements of this experience, as well as some of the problems and difficulties, might constitute a valuable point of contact and be of relevance to the United States at this critical point in time. What follows therefore is a very brief outline. Back to Top


Introducing Language Australia

The organization that is called Language Australia is also known by its longer name of The National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia. The organization was founded in 1989, by the Australian Research Council, under Australia's first explicit and comprehensive language policy, The National Policy on Languages (Lo Bianco 1987), whose principles and approach are the base of much language policy action in Australia. Language Australia is based in Canberra, with a branch office in Melbourne. It established and coordinated the research and policy advising efforts of 32 specialist centers across Australia, and now conducts high level specialist policy advising, publishing and consultancy. The centers specialize in fields as diverse as sign language, interpretation and translation, English as a second language, literacy in English and bilingual literacy, adult literacy and adult English as a second language, as well as a community (heritage) languages involving socio-linguistic research and advising, materials production.

All these efforts have been coordinated and brought together as public policy advice by the Chief Executive of the organization at the central office of the organization constituting a collaborative network that monitors policy administration, development and evolution over time.

This structure brings together three crucial elements (and the interests that these elements represent). In our experience combining these has been of considerable value. First, the interests and perspective of the communities who are ultimately those most directly affected by language policy and who therefore represent a political constituency for comprehensive language planning. Second, the interests and perspectives of language professionals, who are also intimately involved with languages but whose prime role has been to provide intellectual and cultural legitimacy to community demands as well as scholarly research knowledge to the overall endeavor. Third, government and strategic interests and perspectives that connect funding programs, elite legitimating and national interests to the language policy endeavor.


Linguistic demography

In very broad terms, and simplifying for sake of demonstration, Australia's linguistic demography can be divided into two categories: community (heritage) and foreign languages.1

Community languages further subdivide as follows:

Regular teaching: possibly ~10
Revival: potentially ~50
Revitalisation: potentially ~100
Renewal: all
Principally Chinese, Indonesian, Korean and Japan.
Potentially well over 100 languages are involved. Principally French, German and Italian, but also Russian and Spanish.

National Policies
In 1984 the Senate of the Parliament of Australia concluded a 2-year investigation into whether it was in the national interest to develop a nationally coordinated approach to language policy. Its primary recommendation was in favor of national language planning, and especially the developing and promulgating of comprehensive (addressing all of Australia's language and literacy needs) and collaborative (engaging all jurisdictions as well as community level non-government structures and agencies) policy. In response, a policy investigation was commissioned in late 1986 and, after extensive national consultations, was issued publicly and formally adopted by Cabinet as The National Policy on Languages (NPL) on 4 June 1987. Back to Top

State and Territory governments adopted the guiding principles and argumentation of the NPL and evolved state level policies, structures and programs in keeping with the national framework. The result was a coherent national system of planning.

Since that time there has been a massive expansion in language teaching and learning at all levels of education and training (see final section below) though there are regional variations acknowledging differences in demography, starting levels, and subsequent modifications. Although variable across the country there are also now relatively coherent systems of collaboration between public and community providers of language education.

The overarching justifications of the NPL were expressed as four Es:

  • Enrichment: representing intellectual and cultural enrichment, for individuals and for the wider society;
  • Economics: facilitating trade and commercial relations, with a special emphasis on the Asian region, but not neglecting Europe and other parts of the world;
  • Equality: representing enhanced social and educational participation and opportunity for immigrant and indigenous communities and for speakers of non-standard varieties of English as well as for users of Australian Sign Language and for those students with language disabilities;
  • External: facilitating strategic responses to diplomatic, commercial and security interests. The principles of the National Policy on Languages are summarized as follows and elaborated into very broad program categories.


The actual principles are elaborated in a lengthy text, but in summary here these are:

'That all Australians gain high levels of literate standard Australian English That all Australians achieve bilingualism, either by maintaining languages other than English as they acquire English as a second language, or by adding second languages to their existing English. That indigenous and islander languages will be acknowledged as a unique and irreplaceable heritage of Australia and energetic efforts will be made to preserve, restore and secure these languages. That equitable and widespread professional language services will be encouraged.'

Based on these principles, elaborated into a large number of coordinated programs, the policy involved a set of actions aimed at producing English-plus multilingualism, removing language-based social inequalities and discrimination, and enhancing public esteem for bilingual competence.

In 1991 the policy reauthorization process brought about some modifications to the style, and priorities of the NPL, though the principles remained essentially unchanged. In 1994 a special acceleration of the educational efforts for four key Asian languages was initiated.

As I understand it the principal interest of the Interagency Language Roundtable concerns foreign languages and so the following isolates recent policy moves in relation to foreign and community languages alone.

National Policy on Languages,
(Lo Bianco 1987)
Australian Language and Literacy Policy
(Dawkins 1991)2
National Asian Languages and Literacy Policy
(COAG 1994)3
1.CLs (Auslan)
2.9 "Key Langs"
1.Reduced CLs
2.Stressed FLs
3.English literacy
4. Trade langs:
Chinese (M)

It is stressed that only the first policy report in the above table is a comprehensive national language plan, extending across all of government and into civil society. The second focuses only on Federal education and training provisions. The third accelerates action on behalf of four languages in education and training. These are listed therefore in descending order of comprehensiveness as policy statements on language and literacy.

As far as education is concerned the NPL was based on the formula of :Community Languages plus 9 Key Languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Indonesian-Malay, Italian, Japanese, Spanish) plus indigenous languages. The ALLP nominated 14 languages (one of which was all indigenous languages, the nine key languages and some others but it stressed the priority of English literacy), the COAG addressed only four languages to accelerate the rate of their expansion in education. Back to Top


What have been the results of these policies?

1. There has been a wide appreciation that languages are a vital national resource. While multi-cultural policy has been and in some areas continues to attract criticism, and some controversy, very few people challenge the study of languages. Perhaps related to this, there is very little concern about the status of English. The demand for English among immigrants and indigenous people is as vibrant as it has always been. Social and economic forces impel pragmatic instrumentally motivated demand for English, but there is also social and citizenship oriented demand for English. Public provision of English instruction has meant the almost complete absence of politics on this issue. What has been of considerable public controversy has been standards of assessed literacy performance, for both children and adults, but this is not generally perceived to be an immigration connected issue.

2. There has been a wide public acceptance that planning for language competence is both appropriate and necessary. Evidence is supplied in point 7 below of one state (Victoria) that has supplemented Federal policy with complementary but state-specific programming and achieved impressive outcomes. This is true of several states and Victoria is mentioned only to provide an example.

3. There has been a vast increase in the study of languages other than English across Australia with regional differences affected by local demography, or neighboring country languages (for example the Northern Territory has a much higher proportion of spoken Aboriginal languages and is close to Indonesia and so indigenous languages and Indonesian predominate among its language offerings).

4. There has been a significant diversification across Australia of languages studied and of the modes through which language teaching is delivered.

5. In many cases there have been well-developed and coherent connections between English, mother tongue teaching and foreign-community language policies, though this is under some pressure at present.

6. Language Australia stimulated the creation of a large number of specialist research centers and these now constitute part of the overall scene of research to support language education. Interpreting and translating, although relatively well established and well utilized for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, is encountering a difficult period.

7. In relation to one state some figures are supplied for 1999 for the government-schooling sector (almost 25% of pupils attend non-government, mainly Catholic parochial schools) in Victoria, whose capital is Melbourne. Victorian government schools have seen a continual expansion in all areas of language education, guided by a strong state commitment and its full acceptance of Federal policy initiatives. Specifically in 1999 97% of primary (elementary, or K-6) schools offered at least one language, with over 90% of all primary pupils studying a language, all secondary schools offered at least one language, the vast majority more than one, with a network of specialist language schools offering many. 18 languages are taught in government primary schools, 17 in secondary schools and a further 39 are offered by the Victorian School of Languages, which is itself a government school, a specialist "hub" school, that makes available languages teachers to schools that cannot staff an in-demand language in a particular area. The VSL also also offers Saturday language programs.

After-hours (ethnic, or heritage, community-run schools) teach 52 languages which have varying but often very high levels of collaborative relations with relevant government or public schools. There are more than 190 such community organizations. Most have become solid and professionally organized in recent years, and all receive state funding supplementation to Federal 'per capita' funding. Many also offer "insertion programs" in which the community school employs teachers and "supplies" these to the day school (though administratively effective these programs are not always of high quality). Insertion programs are more common in the non-government sector.

The most widely taught languages, in alphabetical order, are Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Greek and Vietnamese.

The state also offers satellite and visiting teacher schemes in remote areas for both primary and secondary levels, and although 91% of primary schools offer face to face, or direct contact, language teaching. 96 remote schools offer their only language, or an additional one, or extended and enrichment language teaching, via the satellite scheme. 167 secondary colleges do likewise but overwhelmingly this is enrichment or additional teaching. Victoria also offers an extensive school languages support scheme supplemented by regular enrichment, overseas immersion, and local immersion schemes. All Victorian universities bolster the state schemes with ongoing professional support and with additional "bonus points" to a student's high school credit to encourage language continuation at university and at school. Back to Top


Although there was initial resistance to language policy making in Australia the experience has proved generally positive and successful. There have also been set backs and changes that have over time proved to have been problematic. The Federal-State cooperation has in fact been a key feature of the successful nature of the initiatives. The principles originally elaborated have endured and proved very valuable in guiding action when specific interests have caused changes that later need to be undone. There has also been an avoidance of some tensions and unproductive contestation that might have arisen.


1. This leaves aside all questions to do with English. The National Policy on Languages devised as pattern of complementary development of English with other languages that, I believe, has prevented the negative politicization of language policy that has bedeviled some US language policy history, especially in relation to bilingual education. In the Australian approach we have always treated English as the uncontested shared national (but not legislated or official) language of Australia and policies have promoted extensive cultivation and development of English relation to child and adult literacy as well as its spoken acquisition for immigrants and indigenous people. Indeed immigration policy has always been accompanied by explicit, Federally funded and state-supported, adult English education from 1948 resulting in the largest single adult English language program in the world.

2. JS Dawkins was Federal Minister for Employment, Education and Training.

3. COAG is the Council of Australian Governments. It aggregates the Federal (Commonwealth) government through the Prime Minister and relevant Ministers, and the State and Territory governments through Premiers and relevant State Ministers. NALSAS funding is to terminate at the end of 2002. NALSAS was based on the principle that there should be a 60/40 distribution of language study between Asian and European languages, with a specific acceleration of effort on behalf of the nominated four priority languages. Not all states endorsed the 60/40 formula.


Dawkins, JSD. (1991) Australia's Language: The Australian Language and Literacy Policy. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. Lo Bianco, J. (1987) National Policy on Languages. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. COAG, Council of Australian Governments, (1994) National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy. Brisbane: Government of Queensland Printer Back to Top