Episode 126      23 min 06 sec
Lingua mundi and the perils of monolingualism

Professor Joe Lo Bianco examines the implications of English as "the world's language", and why it behooves native speakers of English to learn other languages. With host Jennifer Cook.

"Very multilingual societies have low to average levels of conflict and not all the conflict in those societies is due to or attributable to communication problems." -- Prof Joe Lo Bianco




           



Joe Lo Bianco
Joe Lo Bianco

Professor Lo Bianco is best known as the author of the 1987 National Policy on Languages, adopted as a bipartisan national plan for English, Indigenous languages, Asian and European languages, and Interpreting and Translating services and now used worldwide as a model of rational language planning.

He has consulted on language policy and planning and general education in many settings: post-Apartheid South Africa; language education in the US State of Hawaii; integration of Muslim immigrants in European Schools for the Council of Europe; indigenous and foreign languages in Alberta (Canada); Chinese teaching in the state of Alberta (Canada); official English and heritage languages in the United States for the several national organisations and agencies; Tamil and Malay in Singaporean language education; bilingual literacy in Western Samoa and eight other Pacific Island countries; culture and intercultural education for the Japan Foundation; Cantonese and English medium in Hong Kong schools; the Goethe Institut and the French Ministry of Education of shared language policy; the integration of Asian immigrant children into schooling in Tuscany, Lombardy and the Veneto regions of Italy, language policy in Thailand, Ireland, Sri Lanka and the UK.

In 1999 he wrote the National Language Education plan for the Government of Sri Lanka under World Bank financing as part of the peace negotiations in that country. During 2000-2002 he was commissioned to provide language policy advice in Scotland; in 2001 he was invited to work with the Northern Ireland Department of Education on language and multiculturalism as part of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. He has been invited to contribute to policy development on languages for the European Year of Languages 2001 and the Council of Europe (2003) and to the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games from 1997-2000. This work was used for both the Athens 2004 Olympics but more substantially for London 2012 and was the subject of an invited presentation in London in March 2006.

Professor Lo Bianco was a member of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO for ten years. He set up the Melanesian Literacy Project as part of the International Literacy Year in 1990, the Manual for Indigenous Literacy in SE Asian countries in 1997 and the Manual on the role of English in Sri Lankan intercultural policy for the British Council in 2002.

Professor Lo Bianco is best known as the author of the 1987 National Policy on Languages, adopted as a bipartisan national plan for English, Indigenous languages, Asian and European languages, and Interpreting and Translating services and now used worldwide as a model of rational language planning.

He has consulted on language policy and planning and general education in many settings: post-Apartheid South Africa; language education in the US State of Hawaii; integration of Muslim immigrants in European Schools for the Council of Europe; indigenous and foreign languages in Alberta (Canada); Chinese teaching in the state of Alberta (Canada); official English and heritage languages in the United States for the several national organisations and agencies; Tamil and Malay in Singaporean language education; bilingual literacy in Western Samoa and eight other Pacific Island countries; culture and intercultural education for the Japan Foundation; Cantonese and English medium in Hong Kong schools; the Goethe Institut and the French Ministry of Education of shared language policy; the integration of Asian immigrant children into schooling in Tuscany, Lombardy and the Veneto regions of Italy, language policy in Thailand, Ireland, Sri Lanka and the UK.

In 1999 he wrote the National Language Education plan for the Government of Sri Lanka under World Bank financing as part of the peace negotiations in that country. During 2000-2002 he was commissioned to provide language policy advice in Scotland; in 2001 he was invited to work with the Northern Ireland Department of Education on language and multiculturalism as part of the Good Friday Peace Agreement. He has been invited to contribute to policy development on languages for the European Year of Languages 2001 and the Council of Europe (2003) and to the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games from 1997-2000. This work was used for both the Athens 2004 Olympics but more substantially for London 2012 and was the subject of an invited presentation in London in March 2006.

Professor Lo Bianco was a member of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO for ten years. He set up the Melanesian Literacy Project as part of the International Literacy Year in 1990, the Manual for Indigenous Literacy in SE Asian countries in 1997 and the Manual on the role of English in Sri Lankan intercultural policy for the British Council in 2002.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Lingua mundi and the perils of monolingualism

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

JENNIFER COOK
I’m Jennifer Cook.  Thanks for joining us.  The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel is a vivid reminder of how crucial communication and language is to human kind.  When God saw the magnificent structure built by so many he declared they are one people and have one language and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.
God’s response to this was to confound their speech and scatter them upon the face of the earth.  What better way to control the people than to take away their means to communicate, to connect and to understand.  How we speak are shared symbols, they define who we are and in many ways who we are not. 
Today’s guest is a man who has worked all over the world helping individuals, communities and organisations find ways of understanding each other, of communicating through shared language.  Joe Lo Bianco is Professor of Language and Literacy Education at Melbourne Graduate School of Education in the University of Melbourne and President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
In 1987 he wrote Australia’s first national policy on languages.  This was the first multilingual national language policy in any English speaking country.  He has worked worldwide in different societies and institutions on including multilingualism in language policy and practice. 
In this episode we are looking beyond the technical challenges of teaching English en masse to examining the historic context and perhaps most fascinating the cultural ramifications of learning to speak in another tongue.
Professor Lo Bianco, thank you so much for joining us.

JOE LO BIANCO
Thank you very much.  It is a pleasure to be here.

JENNIFER COOK
Now you say that before you can even begin to implement a multilingual policy you have to overcome something you describe as a culture of impossibility.  That’s the belief that it is impossible for people and organisation and community or institutions to communicate in any way except monolingualism.  In other words it’s too hard.  Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of impossibilisation?

JOE LO BIANCO
Well that is precisely the first step that you have to take in any process of developing a policy to make the most of multilingualism and it is to challenge the idea that people have which is expressed beautifully in the quote that you gave at the beginning, that it is simply undesirable in that it is a curse, multilingualism is a curse, God’s curse on humanity was to spread them and to produce multiple languages so that they could not communicate.
So there you have the fundamental dilemma that we always deal with, the belief that having multiple languages produces chaos, produces disorganisation or economic efficiency and in fact there is a long history of thinking, even in sociology and economics, that multilingualism produces poverty.
Of course when you look at the rapid economic development of India today you couldn’t possibly believe such a thing because it is very clear that India is one of the most intensely multilingual societies on earth and even at its official level, they recognise 22 I think scheduled languages in the constitution plus English plus Hindi across the country, but communication is possible.
Not only do they have that many languages, but they also have a large number of scripts that are given local and regional and state and official national status.
So I think communication across differences is really important in our time in history more than ever, but we shouldn’t assume that that means monolingualism or that it should mean monolingualism, it just means shared means of communication.
The other thing that people often imagine makes multilingual policies impossible is a belief that if people don’t have just one language or one culture or one ethnic social or religious background that there will be all sorts of conflict and that multilingualism or pluralism produces conflict, but in fact if you look at conflict and states around the world, it is very hard to sustain that.  You find that very multilingual societies have low to average levels of conflict and not all the conflict in those societies is due to or attributable to communication problems.
Then you can look at quite monolingual and mono ethnic and mono religious societies and you can find examples of extraordinary conflict and division.  Like the most uncivil conflict in the world is what we call a civil war perversely and civil wars often don’t happen in multilingual societies.  They often happen in monolingual societies in which there are ideological differences.
A bigger predictor of conflict is really when you have rival groups competing for the centres of power, regardless of what their differences or similarities are.  It’s really often not to do with difference.
So people have this impossibilising assumption that it is impossible to have multilingualism, it is impossible to have multiculturalism, multiethnic and faith diversity in a society and have harmony, communication and social progress.  I think that the reason that they do that is because we have quite a narrow view of what a nation should be and I think a very historical one as well.

JENNIFER COOK
You talk about this western view, this modern, western view where we seem to stand as if we are on a precipice looking out, going look at this modern world.  Globalisation is the way, one language is the way and you are saying that does ignore a lot of history doesn’t it?

JOE LO BIANCO
Well yes, even in the west of course it ignores a lot of history because prior to the emergence of the national state which we understand is being a relatively homogeneous place.  Europe for example in a period of time that could best be called Christendom was deeply multilingual but it had a shared language like language of communication across what now are national boundaries and regional boundaries and elites spoke that and also dynastic families married into each other.  They were all deeply multilingual. 
You know the Russian Royal Family, the Romanovs were French speaking.  There has always been the case where you have had rulers who cultural and linguistic patterns were very different from the people that they ruled.  And then at the local level you had incredible localisation which meant a very, very large number of local cultural affiliations and linguistic differences. 
So Europe was much, much more multilingual before the rise of the nation state and the nation state required the people who were ruled and the rulers to be of the same cultural and linguistic patterns.  This meant that the state went about mainly through education systems in homogenising people linguistically and to a large extent it has succeeded in that.
It is not to say it is just a western pattern. I mean actually Japan and Korea for example have relatively homogeneous monolingual, mono ethnic histories and self images and many societies have that, but it is true to say that the ideal, especially through the French Revolution in Europe became elevated to such an extent that to participate fully as a citizen you had to know the language of the society, the language of the law and that’s true, but it doesn’t mean that you have to only know that.
So what was confounded then was the idea of participation and communication with the idea that you should get rid of difference to make that happen.

JENNIFER COOK
I want to talk to you now about your idea of English monolingualism.  You talk it about being a double handicap.  It actually limits you.

JOE LO BIANCO
Well today we are actually reproducing some of the conditions of the pre nation state.  The mobility of people is very, very high.  Communication across national boundaries is extremely easy and so multilingualism has become an asset for lots of people for whom it wasn’t perhaps in the more recent past.
And soo we are reproducing the conditions of the ancient past here and a lot of people recognise that English is very powerful in the world, it clearly is.  It is the lingua mundi as some people have called it, not just the lingua franca but the lingua franca of the world and it is associated with globalisation to a large extent.
I mean the Chinese investment in English is staggering.  I mean there are 300 million people engaged in the learning of English.  It is compulsory at every level of education and to enter college you need to pass college English tests and so on.
So the level of investment in English in large parts of the world is huge and in it’s in Asia in particular the transnational language par excellence.

JENNIFER COOK
It’s done at an early age isn’t it?  It’s very important.

JOE LO BIANCO
It starts from the very beginning of schooling in many, many societies and many societies like Japan and Korea have actually debated making English an official language even though they were never colonised by an English speaking country, either of those two states.
So English is unique in that it is the only language that has remained the dominant language despite a shift of power.  All transfer of power from one imperial regime in the world to another has been accompanied by a shift in language.  The decline of Latin meant the rise of French or Spanish and English and Russian and so on in the European context and these were then exported globally through imperial expansion.
The fall of one always resulted in the rise of another language of imperial reach, but when Britain’s empire declines and America’s global commercial sway takes its place, you have a shift in imperial power or reach or global influence, but a retention of the language through which that’s done.  That’s never happened in history before.
So English has benefited by this unique circumstance that happened in the middle of the 20th century and of course we could be going through another one now, a massive transfer of power, economic and cultural and civilisational and military power to North Asia and particularly to China.
So it is quite possible that English will lose some ground, but unquestionably it’s the language facilitating global communication today, but if other people learn English like the Chinese and the Indians and the Japanese and the Germans and retain their languages as they are all doing, it means that people who are English speakers are not actually made more powerful by the fact that other people learn English.  They are actually made less powerful.  That’s the irony in this in that it’s a disadvantage not to have English in the world, but it is also a disadvantage to have only English.

JENNIFER COOK
It’s a disadvantage isn’t it to assume that as an English speaker you have a ticket to travel and communicate and that’s going to be enough?

JOE LO BIANCO
Well that’s an enormous self disadvantage because it closes you off from so much of the way a society sees itself.  I mean if you communicate with people only in English, that might facilitate the communication and that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t give you access to any part of their world that isn’t available in English.

JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close and we are coming to you from the University of Melbourne Australia.  I’m Jennifer Cook and our guest today is Professor Joe Lo Bianco and we are discussing the fascinating cultural ramifications of learning to speak in another tongue.
Now if we take this lens of monolingualism and apply it, you have a wonderful story about I think it was a little boy in Sri Lanka who was deemed not smart enough for the school level, but tell us about him?

JOE LO BIANCO
Yes, this story basically captures the point I was trying to make before about communication and language.  This is a very poor child and I mean it’s true of thousands of children all around the world.  It’s just dramatically true in this particular case.
In this school are very poor Tamil speaking children in a tea plantation area in Sri Lanka where there was the teaching of English and also Sinhala, the other national language of the country and a lot of the children in this particular school were judged not to be able to cope.  Their parents were too poor.  Their motivation to learn and stay at school was not very high, even though Sri Lanka has actually a very high attendance rate in school generally.
So these children in a particular class that I worked with for a while and a particular individual child that stood out because he was commented on by the teacher as being an example of the kind of child that just would not learn these languages and for whom it was a wasted effort, about two days after visiting this school, I went to a local tourist site with some visitors from Europe who were visiting me and we noticed a group of children who were running basically a very, very sophisticated sales operation. 
They had a little system for deciding where they were Japanese speakers or, there were a lot of Italian tourists in this area as well.  Italian tourists or English speakers, they had a range of languages and they would in relays basically get the little carved elephant or carved Budda and attack basically these tourists with this object and say, buy, buy, buy, you have got to buy, buy, buy in English or if they had decided and they had a really sophisticated surveillance system for working out, not always correctly, what language it was that the visitors probably did speak, either Spanish or certainly Japanese and Italian.
This particular boy, I heard him try in amazingly persuasive machine gun language on buying a carved elephant, trying to get this man to buy it for his female partner or the woman to buy it or whatever, negotiating on price, negotiating on how beautiful this object was and how nice it would look on their mantelpiece and whatever, this amazing, and then he did it in Italian, I just couldn’t believe it.
Well what this demonstrates is, and I think people have seen this in poor countries in tourist areas in many parts of the world that young kids, when there is a deep motivation for doing this, this was presumably earning a little bit of money to help the family out they are capable of extraordinary language learning.  This is real language learning for real purposes in the real world where they knew what the kind of communication that was required would be and they were able to use a range of tense forms.  It was quite extraordinary.
I actually took notes on it and I have got quite a good record of what he actually said, so far as I could pick it up, but if you had a little microphone strapped to him you would have had a perfect example of how we should teach languages or one of the ways in which we should teach languages deeply around purpose.

JENNIFER COOK
The richness of that story and the fluidity of this child’s thinking processes and then contrast it with the sterility of the classroom saying, oh no this child is under par, he is not up to standard.

JOE LO BIANCO
Also the misjudgement that we make and how we sometimes imagine that ability is associated with the social or economic position of a student when clearly there is no connection whatsoever between those two.

JENNIFER COOK
Leading on from that I would like to take you to another anecdote of yours, tell me what happened post 9/11 when the American GI’s were taught Arabic and were sent to Baghdad?  Because there were examples of communication with the local people, but also that had some other effects didn’t it within the GI’s?  What I am getting at here, how learning a language can change you and the way you think.

JOE LO BIANCO
We can never think of language, it’s just a technical exercise that doesn’t produce some kind of change in you.  I think this happens for individuals and I think it happens for societies.  Languages are not just neutral instruments for getting messages across. 
I mean there are some functions of language that are like that of course.  If you ask someone for their telephone number and they tell you their telephone number, there’s probably no cultural or ideological content, or very, very little in that.  Although thinking around numbers clearly is a cultural thing.
After the 9/11 events in the United States the US Government invested very heavily in second language learning around strategic languages and after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, of course because if you are engaged in nation building after conflict you have got to be able to communicate to local people in their own language.  
There are a lot of studied examples of the ways in which the interpreters in Afghanistan and in Iraq were in very difficult situations.  Because quite often to interpret the meanings of someone that you are suspicious about or according to the soldiers they might be harbouring terrorists or they might be on the side of people that are against you, whatever, in a situation of conflict and tension even just to try and communicate or get an interpreter to communicate, requires going a long way towards understanding someone else’s view of the world. 
Because it is not just words that are passing by, you have to explain how someone sees the world.  Why they won't tell you that.  Why they might not tell you that.  Quite a lot of the interpreters were put in a very difficult position of being seen by both sides as being partisan rather than neutral.
In fact there is an old aphorism in Italian which is traduttore, traditore, which means that the translator is a traitor, is how it stands and you can't really imagine ultimately that a language is just a neutral vehicle for getting messages across. 
There is always the intention of the person thrown in there, how they see the world, their perspective on what you are talking about and many of the soldiers were not trained in how to work with interpreters or to understand that to get the meanings that some local person is expressing back to you, they would have to really engage with them a lot and find out a lot about their experiences.  And that made them sometimes seem to be on the side of that person and taking too much time to express their views.
So these kinds of things just show how in the really nitty gritty ordinary world we just misunderstand language as being just a simple message conveying instrument, but it’s not, it’s more complex than that.

JENNIFER COOK
It’s so interesting isn’t it? Because to communicate with someone, to speak their language, you are sharing symbols, you are actually understanding them, and in that understanding then you have to convey it.  It’s a very complicated process which you have demonstrated with that story.

JOE LO BIANCO
People who work in a kind of language teaching approach called inter cultural language teaching have a good way to express this.  Because if you are learning a language you are not just learning a set of tools that then you use as an unchanged person.  What you are basically doing is adopting the assumptions that a language has built into it and those assumptions are historical. 
Each language has assumptions.  Like in all the romance languages the assumption is that everything is gendered.  Like you know a room is not just a room but it is a male or female thing.
If you learn some Indian languages, the entities in the world that can act and therefore have to have different verbs that give them the ability to have agency as we call it are very different from the ones that we would from an English speaking or Judeo Christian environment bring in to it.
Chinese has very different ways to represent how much description you have to give to something.  In Japanese you have to position yourself in relation to the person you are speaking with in terms of the pronouns you use about yourself.
In Australian Aboriginal languages you have to rename large parts of the world depending on how old you are and who you are speaking to.
So these are at a big level, cultural assumptions, but at a small level there are cultural assumptions built in all communication because the words are not where the meaning resides to a large extent.  It’s around what we call pragmatics, how you actually get things done in language because this view of language is one that sees language as action in itself, not just as a vehicle for conveying information that’s neutral.
But if you have this view of language, then learning another language must change you to some extent because you have to take on the assumptions that the language has built in it. But even when you communicate in your own language, assuming you are a mother tongue speaker of English, there are many styles and varieties within your language which you move through.
If you are in the pub talking to some friends, you take on the assumptions of that kind of communication environment, but if you were having tea with the Queen you wouldn’t speak like that at all and that stylistic change reflects the fact that language is not organised in some undifferentiated way, it is highly differentiated according to social function and context.

JENNIFER COOK
You’ve been listening to Up Close and I’ve been speaking with Professor Joe Lo Bianco about how learning and speaking another language changes us and our culture in ways we may never even have imagined.
Professor Lo Bianco, thank you so much for your time today.

JOE LO BIANCO
It’s been a pleasure Jennifer.

JENNIFER COOK
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia. 
This episode was recorded on 28 October 2010 and our producers were Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.  Up Close is created by Kelvin Param and
Eric van Bemmel.  I’m Jennifer Cook, until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2011. The University of Melbourne.


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