Compared to other Asian migrant populations in Western Australia (WA), the Mongolian community is relatively small, with less than 400 people. However, the second generation children of this group are already in real danger of losing all traces of their Mongolian language, culture and heritage.
The situation contrasts sharply with what has happened with larger migrant groups, such as the Chinese community, which has over 100,000 inhabitants in WA. They have succeeded in preserving their language and their culture by force of numbers. Unfortunately, small migrant communities are much more susceptible to linguistic assimilation – losing their original language as one gradually changes to the dominant language of the host society.
However, size is not everything and being a small migrant community is not necessarily the key factor in the loss of language and culture. Despite their large populations here, Italian and Greek migrants are losing their language faster than any other group of migrants in Australia. This may be due to the fact that most post-war Italian migrants to Australia spoke only specific dialects as their first language and, in the context of white Australian politics and the imperative of assimilation, they did not pass on their dialects to the second generation. This resulted in the sad plight of grandchildren unable to speak to their grandparents.
An equally tragic situation looms for the second generation of Mongolian children in WA. Many Mongolians who settle here have an Australian spouse, whom they may have met in Mongolia while these partners worked for mining companies such as Rio Tinto. But now that these families live in Australia, the Mongolian language is often not used in these households.
Even when both parents are Mongolians, many encourage their children to speak “only English” both at school and at home – their goal, naturally, like that of Italians and Greeks, is to assimilate their children into their new community.
Many parents have misconceptions about being bilingual and, like many in Australia, have a unilingual mindset. Thus, they believe that by using English as much as possible, their children have the best chance of prospering in mainstream society. As a result, the importance of passing on one’s native language to the next generation is often overlooked, even though we know that language and culture are essential to well-being and a positive self-identity.
What is the role of universities in the preservation of languages?
Given these grim realities, it is vital for linguists based at universities in multicultural places such as Australia to focus on factual research on the maintenance of original languages. Although a lot of research has been done in this area, there is still a long way to go. Another crucial role of universities is to raise public and society’s awareness of language heritage rights as defined by the UN.
Heritage languages should be a valued part of modern Australian culture and society given their importance for a sense of belonging and identity. When a language dies, the link with the cultural, traditional and historical past of that particular heritage also disappears.
Universities also have a responsibility to provide administrators and decision-makers at local and national government levels with policy recommendations based on their evidence-based research on the revitalization of original languages. As academics, we must defend and promote the importance of preserving heritage languages while working collaboratively with community language schools to establish a standard bilingual curriculum. Helpfully, such collaboration can enable strong recommendations based on both theory and practice to help inform policy development.
It is equally crucial for universities to help raise awareness among community migrant groups and within them of the importance of maintaining and passing on their languages to future generations. As society becomes more and more multicultural, there is a need for citizens with an immigrant background to learn to function linguistically in a variety of contexts. Acquisition of English should not interfere with proficiency in heritage languages and vice versa – the main aim should be to develop complementary and balanced excellence in both languages.
The most appropriate bilingual educational approach is one which maintains the right balance between linguistic assimilation into English but without the linguistic loss of heritage languages. Both languages should adapt to mutually inclusive approaches.
How can universities help preserve languages?
Universities can support the preservation and revitalization of heritage languages by helping community language schools provide quality education. As experts, academics have the capacity to help them apply the most innovative research and educational approaches. By sharing their research and theoretical understanding, universities are able to translate their knowledge into society at large.
Universities can also communicate directly with parents to share the importance of transmitting their native language and culture, help them learn how to become more actively involved in their child’s academic success and foster an appreciation of their linguistic context. and unique culture.
Universities also have the opportunity to advocate for policies that promote linguistic diversity as standard societal practice and recognize heritage languages as educational and cultural resources. Practical examples could be a recommendation for a study program that would push all students beyond basic foreign language skills. Not all students would necessarily be fluent in said foreign languages, but the process of in-depth study of a foreign language and culture would likely result in a better appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity.
Additionally, universities can intensify discussions on campus through bottom-up practices such as creating safe public spaces for students with an immigrant background to make full use of their language skills. Encouraging open community groups engaging in cultural and linguistic exchanges on campus is also important – this could include elements of the linguistic landscape such as signs, instructions and other written materials featuring foreign languages. Even small steps like these can help a largely monolingual mindset become more exposed and open to the idea of a multilingual society.
Sender Dovchin is Principal Investigator and Discipline Officer in the Applied Linguistics and Languages group at the School of Education at Curtin University, Australia. Dr Dovchin is also an early career researcher with the Australian Research Council, specializing in language and discrimination issues.
Rhonda Oliver is an expert in second language and second dialect acquisition, particularly for child and adolescent learners, at the School of Education at Curtin University. She is an active researcher and has made a significant contribution to curriculum change and innovation in WA schools.