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Australia’s language challenges limit national potential

Parents whose first language is not English might find it harder to get information from their child’s school. : Kenny Eliason, Unsplash CC BY 4.0 Parents whose first language is not English might find it harder to get information from their child’s school. : Kenny Eliason, Unsplash CC BY 4.0

Australians who primarily speak a language other than English are being locked out and left behind in the communication of important information.

When Yu Qi (not her real name) discovered her son was falling behind in school, she had no way of finding out why or how she could support him. After getting injured at work, Venus (not her real name) was asked by her supervisor to delay seeking medical attention until she had finished her shift. She was unaware of her rights.

Yu Qi and Venus are both victims of a language barrier in Australia that seriously affects their wellbeing. Language barriers can make public communication inaccessible and exclude people from equitable participation in education, employment, healthcare, welfare, and all aspects of social life. 

The number of people who suffer from linguistic exclusion is high. UNESCO estimates that 40 percent of students worldwide experience a mismatch between their language repertoires and the language of instruction. Even within OECD countries, the literacy skills of over 30 percent of the adult population are insufficient to cope with complex bureaucratic demands.

Language barriers can relate to language choice, medium, and platform.

Language choice barriers exist where institutions privilege one particular language in communication with multilingual populations. These barriers mostly affect migrant and indigenous minorities. The mismatch between the language of the institution and that of stakeholders can be egregious. Australian research, for instance, found that schools communicated enrollment information exclusively in English, even if up to 98 percent of families in the catchment area spoke a language other than English.

Even people who speak the language of the institution well may be confronted with language barriers because institutions usually preference the written medium. Written communication is often mismatched to the audience’s level of education. The readability of COVID-19 restrictions published by the NSW Health Department, for instance, was found to be pitched at readers with a tertiary education. This means many people did not have a fair chance to understand what was required of them. Even so, children as young as 13 and people with an intellectual disability were fined for not abiding by these restrictions.

These two forms of language barriers increasingly combine with a third, where an institution’s communication platform may not be equally accessible. As more and more communication has become digitised, people without computer access or with low levels of computer literacy may be excluded from vital information. For example, the health authorities in Indonesia’s West Nusa Tenggara province provided information about how to stop the spread of COVID-19 mostly on the web. Yet only 20 percent of the population use digital technologies to access written materials.

Yu Qi’s problem was a language choice barrier: her dominant language is Chinese, and she feels overwhelmed by the written English information she receives from her son’s school. At the same time, she lacks the linguistic confidence to request or attend a parent-teacher interview. Therefore, she relies on information she can glean from her son, from other Chinese parents, and she seeks extracurricular tutoring from commercial Chinese-language services. She is not aware that government-sponsored interpreting services exist in Australia, which could help mediate her communication with her son’s school.

Venus experienced a different sort of language barrier: having grown up in West Africa, she is a fluent English speaker. However, her literacy level is low, and she has hardly any knowledge of Australian occupational health and safety legislation, leave entitlements, and workers’ compensation provisions. Therefore, all she could do was “argue” with her supervisor. She could not set in motion the written bureaucratic process of documenting her injury and making a claim that would have secured proper care and mitigated any long-term health consequences.

Supporting language diversity is a matter of social justice. It is a starting point to making institutions more accessible and inclusive. Australia put a plan in place at the national level in the 1980s with the National Policy on Languages. However, having since fallen into disuse, the National Policy on Languages would require an update to adequately serve the changing communication needs of the times.

A comprehensive, effective language access plan includes the provision of translated materials and interpreting services as necessary. It also includes robust communication chains, where low-literacy people have the chance to talk things over as needed. And a needs assessment of the platforms best suited to communicate with the target population would help the plan be accessible and inclusive. 

There is no one size fits all but providing information in the languages of key stakeholders, and adjusting the communication medium and platform to their capacities is key to reaching everyone in the community. 

In a linguistically diverse world, institutions are likely to already have people with the right linguistic skills among their ranks. Harnessing and rewarding those linguistic skills unlocks potential and allows institutions and individuals to thrive. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, communication is a vital aspect of disaster preparedness and response. As we take lessons in a post-pandemic world, every institution could benefit from having a language and communication task force embedded.

Ingrid Piller is Distinguished Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice. Her research in intercultural communication, language learning, and multilingualism is available through Language on the Move, and she tweets about linguistic diversity at @lg_on_the_move.

Professor Piller’s research has received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and the Humboldt Foundation.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

Authors
Ingrid Piller
Macquarie University

Editor
Reece Hooker
Reece Hooker, Assistant Producer, 360info Asia-Pacific

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