House debates

Monday, 18 February 2019

Private Members' Business

International Mother Language Day

12:44 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:


(a)that 21 February is International Mother Language Day (IMLD);

(b)the work of the Ekushe Academy Australia and the Mother Language Conservation Movement in creating awareness of the importance of mother languages in Australia;

(c)that 2019 is the Year of Indigenous Languages; and

(d)that about 200 different languages are spoken throughout Australia; and

(2)calls on the Australian Government to:

(a)observe IMLD on 21 February;

(b)promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people around the world, especially in Australia;

(c)build on Australia's multilingual strengths including support for second language education in Australian education institutions; and

(d)actively work to support communities in their efforts to preserve their mother language.

21 February is International Mother Language Day. It gives me the opportunity to celebrate the richness of language in my community and to talk about two of Labor's policies to grow our language skills. Language allows us to transmit meaning. For each culture, language holds significant history, traditions and identity, and meanings that are quite often specific to that language. It is also a doorway to other cultures, knowledge exchange and trade. We are a very lucky country to have so many languages spoken in our communities. It is in the interest of the families, human understanding and our economy to grow that capacity.

International Mother Language Day was established in 2000. The date of 21 February corresponds with the day in 1952 when students were protesting for the recognition of Bangla as one of the national languages of East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh. During the demonstration, four young students were shot dead. So it is a day of special significance to Bangla speaking people in Australia, and I have worked with them for many years to raise the profile of this day. I would like to make special mention of Nirmal Paul, who is the founder and chairperson of Mother Languages Conservation International, and Dr Swapan Paul, who is the president of the Ekushe Academy Australia. Both of these organisations have a mission to raise awareness of the importance of mother language in the Australian community—and they do a remarkable job.

And there is a lot to be aware of. In my community, just in the community of Parramatta, there are 110 languages spoken at home. All of the languages spoken add to the vibrancy of our community, and I am proud of the diversity and richness in which we live. Labor has two particular policies aimed at fostering that richness. On Saturday we announced a plan to get more Australian children learning languages. A Shorten Labor government, if elected, will invest an extra $8 million in community language schools so that more Australian children get the chance to learn other languages.

The parents and grandparents in Parramatta who were born overseas probably know all about community language schools, but there are many who don't. They have been operating in Australia for more than 150 years. There are 700 of them, teaching over 100,000 students in over 80 languages, with literally thousands of volunteer teachers and very committed parents. That includes Akan Education Learning Program, in Granville; Our Lady of Lebanon Arabic School, in Harris Park; the Bangla Language School, in Rosehill; the Shua Community Language School, in Granville; the Afghan Community Language School and the Afghan Cultural School, in Parramatta, which both teach Dari; the South Asian Australian Association, in Parramatta, which teaches Hindi; and just outside my electorate the Wentworthville Tamil Study Centre, which teaches Tamil. The $25,000 grants that will be available through the program will make a real difference and will allow these committed groups of parents and teachers to extend their services to three-and four-year-olds. So children will be exposed to these languages and learn the skills of language at an even younger age, which is incredibly important for our future prosperity as a nation and for the strength of the communities among us.

But we also need to improve efforts in schools. A Shorten Labor government will also make Asian languages and literacy a national priority and invest $32 million to strengthen Asian language and literacy education in schools. The number of students studying Asian languages has actually been stagnating in recent years. It is a surprise, because you would expect it to be different. As a nation, we have been stagnating. We are in one of the fastest growing regions in the world, with a natural capacity for language in our community, and we are not grabbing the opportunity with both hands. We should be. If elected, Labor will increase the number of Asian language teachers, we will improve Asian language curriculum materials from preschool to year 12 and we will set ambitious targets and goals for Asian languages. A Shorten Labor government will get more Australians studying Asian languages to ensure the next generation is prepared for the jobs and economic opportunities of the Asian century.

As we celebrate International Mother Language Day on 21 February, let's celebrate the richness and diversity that language brings to our community but let's also acknowledge the imperative to grow and develop this strength so that our children and grandchildren can better understand their cultural background and talk to their grandparents in their first language but also so that our strength in languages links us to the world as only a common language can. We are indeed a lucky country. If elected, Labor will invest in the richness of our multilingual population. Happy 21 February, happy International Mother Language Day to all my community, particularly those who speak Bangla.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

12:49 pm

Photo of John AlexanderJohn Alexander (Bennelong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you to my neighbour and colleague the member for Parramatta for raising this motion on an event that is very important to our part of Australia and particularly close to my community of Bennelong: International Mother Language Day. I'm immensely proud that I represent one of the most diverse electorates in Australia. Bennelong is a patchwork of international identities, experiences and backgrounds. We have the largest Chinese community of any electorate in the country and substantial populations of Italians, Armenians, Koreans and Indians, to name only a few. They are deeply involved in the Australian way of life and also bring the culture of their ancestral nations to Bennelong. The result is that we have a bright, energetic, dynamic melting pot like nothing else. Rarely a week goes by when there isn't a celebration or event from one of our vibrant communities.

Our mixture of backgrounds means that we're also home to a range of languages. In fact, 22 per cent of Bennelong speaks either Mandarin or Cantonese; 9,000 speak Korean; roughly 3,000 speak Italian; and about the same number speak Arabic. An astonishing 51 per cent of homes in Bennelong speak a language other than English. We are unquestionably one of the most linguistically diverse electorates in the country.

It is fitting that, in the lead-up to International Mother Language Day, we take time to recognise the importance of linguistic diversity and the wonderful benefits it yields. A salient fact of our history is that we have depended on connection to the outside world for our growth and prosperity. Our economy would be vastly smaller and less influential than it is currently if it were not for the waves of immigration and economic reform that opened our economy to the world. But for all our international trade and prosperity we must have fluent, able speakers ready to facilitate business. Our history is replete with examples of immigrants using their language skills and connections to their countries of origin to create international business and trade. If we did not have such an incredible multilingual population, I cannot imagine that we would have prospered in the way that we have.

On an individual level, multilingual ability has immense advantages. A wealth of scientific literature suggests that people who know more than one language have stronger reasoning skills and greater neuroplasticity, which means they are better at processing new information and dealing with abstract thinking tasks. This is even more true of early education in languages. Scientific evidence suggests that acquiring ability in a second language early in life makes it far easier to learn more languages as you grow older. It's also worth noting that there are substantial benefits to your careers. Economists have determined that fluent ability in a second language adds an average benefit to your lifetime earnings of between five and 13.2 per cent. It goes without saying that the private benefits of speaking a second language are tremendous.

But facility with language cannot be achieved without good teachers. There are a great many schools in our electorate which have filled this role, and it's important that we acknowledge their dedication and contribution. Eastwood has played host to the Australian Chinese Community Association Chinese Language School for over 40 years. They have taught both Mandarin and Cantonese to thousands of students and kept alive the traditions of Chinese languages for generations.

In Meadowbank you can find the Italian Bilingual School, which has operated for more than 15 years, led capably by Silvia Onorati and her team. The school has gone from strength to strength in teaching Italian to our community.

Finally, I must acknowledge the Ryde Persian School, which has surpassed its 30th year as a marvellous not-for-profit school run only by volunteers. Mrs Forouza Soltani and her team teach Farsi to kindergarten students and adults and everyone in between.

I think it's admirable that not only do we have so many language schools but they have each served the community for so long. I've often remarked that our diversity is our strength, and we needn't look further than Bennelong to see the truth of this. I wish everyone a happy International Mother Language Day.

12:54 pm

Photo of Anne AlyAnne Aly (Cowan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mesaa el Kheir wa Ahlan wasahlan lil cul. That means, 'Good afternoon, and welcome to everyone' in my second language, which was actually my parents' first language. As one of the few bilingual members of parliament, it gives me great pleasure to stand here and speak on this motion put forward by the member for Parramatta. As we know, Thursday, 21 February is International Mother Language Day. It has been observed since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, and multilingualism.

Language is inextricably linked to identity and culture, but it also has implications for communication, social cohesion, integration, education and development, and, of course, for international relations. With globalisation, sadly, we've seen that linguistic diversity in this world is under threat. Every two weeks, a language disappears, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally, 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand and at least 43 per cent of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world today are endangered—they're in danger of being completely wiped out.

Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and fewer than a hundred are used in the digital world—compare that to 6,000 languages spoken worldwide. So, when we have a world with over 6,000 languages spoken, many of them indigenous languages, that means an increasingly narrow and rapidly declining cultural and linguistic diversity. When languages disappear, so does culture, so does heritage, so does history, and so does identity, but also opportunities and rights. And it's not just about culture and heritage; the brain benefits of bilingualism, but also multilingualism, are well documented. tYoung adults proficient in two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language.

The social benefits of language retention are also well-documented. We know, for example that, as people age, they tend to refer to their L1, or their first language, because they no longer need or have opportunities to use their second language. Bilingualism also offers benefits for social mobility, for inclusion and for opportunity. And this year's International Mother Language Day is framed by the International Year of Indigenous Languages, because indigenous languages matter: they matter for development, they matter for peace-building and they matter for reconciliation.

In Australia, of the estimated original 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, only around 120 are still spoken. And, of these, around 90 per cent are endangered and under threat. Historically, political persecution, a lack of preservation and globalisation are primarily to blame for the dwindling of language diversity. And, for much of the 20th century, governments across the world have imposed languages on indigenous people, often through coercion. A half a century after China annexed Tibet, for example, dozens of distinct dialects with unique alphabets are now on the verge of extinction.

Apart from forced suppression, languages disappear because of attrition and globalisation. When people who speak a rare language die, often that language dies with them. But this doesn't have to be the case. With political will and a dedicated effort, we can stop languages from dying. We can have cultural and linguistic retention, and ensure that Indigenous languages in Australia are passed on from generation to generation.

Linguistic and cultural retention should not be seen as a barrier to social integration as it once was. For example, when I was growing up, we were often told, 'Speak English.' As a result, I did not grow up bilingual. In fact, I learned my mother tongue after I was 18 and moved back to Egypt. But, by being exposed to it through my growing years from my parents, it wasn't as hard to learn as it would have been had I not been exposed to it.

So, today, I commend this motion. I wish everyone a happy International Mother Language Day on Thursday, and I remind us all that we all have a responsibility to retain our cultural and linguistic diversity, and to promote Indigenous languages.

12:59 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (New England, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, 'Yaama' is the welcome in Gamilaraay, and 'Iludiwiga' is the welcome in Bundjalung. I want to express my support for this motion and say how important it is that we also acknowledge the mother tongue of so much of my area, which is Aboriginal—though they call themselves Gamilaraay in one part, Anaiwan in the Walcha part and Bundjalung in the north. I have always been an absolute supporter of making sure we had the re-establishment of language in the country where I grew up.

I live in a town called 'Danglemah'; I know that was Aboriginal—and they prefer to be called 'Aboriginal' in my area, not 'Indigenous'—and I've got no idea what it means, and neither does anybody else. We know it's Aboriginal; we just don't know what it means, because the language has been lost. Likewise, I went to a primary school at a place called 'Woolbrook'; no-one knows what that means; we know it's Aboriginal but we don't know what it means. 'Weabonga'—I grew up in the hills, being a hillbilly—was Aboriginal, but no-one knows what 'Weabonga' means. Up the road was another school I went to, the Woolbrook public school, but it was never called 'Woolbrook'; it was called 'Maluerindi' and we changed it to an anglicised form, which is bad, because it wasn't 'discovered' by Europeans; it had long since been occupied by Aboriginal people. And they're still there—the families who are there have been there for tens of thousands of years. They don't harp on it, but they very much acknowledge what it is.

I also want to acknowledge some of the people in my area, such as Lenny Waters, who was born at Toomelah; he always promotes the Gamilaraay language at his welcome to country. I think there is nothing better than hearing a welcome to country in language, because you actually get the ethos of their more spiritual beliefs as to how things work. For instance, 'Gunagulla' means 'big sky', and it's vitally important; I used to drive past Gunagulla all the time, and never knew what it meant, but Lenny Waters told me: it means 'big sky'. Likewise, Mark Sutherland has been a great proponent of promoting language.

In essence, in talking about mother tongues, we must, through this motion, acknowledge the mother tongue of our own country, the country we live in, and all its diversity and all its nuances across the Indigenous and Aboriginal nations in Australia. I would like—this is a personal request—to see the acknowledgement of country that we perform in our parliament every day given in the language of the area. There seems to be something oxymoronic in doing the acknowledgement of country, to acknowledge the nation's Aboriginal founders, in our language. It just doesn't rock up! So I think that would be a really nice sentiment of reconciliation.

I also acknowledge Dr Anne Aly and what she just said. It is a fact that there is no better way to stimulate neuroplasticity, your brain's plasticity, than by the learning of another language. The worst is watching midday TV. After that, it's simple equations—two plus two; four plus four. Dreaming is a bit above that. And the best way to exercise your brain—which is just another organ—is to endeavour to learn another language. In Australia, we are not naturally a single-language country. In the noting of languages that are lost, you won't get a better example than Australia. And, for giving people a sense of ownership, a sense of identity and a sense of connection—especially for the Aboriginal people of my electorate, the Anaiwan, the Gamilaraay, the Goomeri and the Bundjalung—it is their attachment to their language. There are still people who genuinely speak it, and speak it as they learnt it, but they are quickly disappearing. They, like all of us, are dying.

So I acknowledge that, in this great nation, we should acknowledge the 60,000 years we've been around, not the 230 or so, and we do that best by acknowledging the mother tongue of this nation—that is, our multiple Aboriginal languages.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member. There being no further speakers, the debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.