The national communication ecology in Australia — a backstory like no other
‘It is useful to reflect on what assumptions we make about the literate home, what our curriculum expects learners to do and know. Teachers should always try to know about the communication ecology of their learners, and will always find important information on which to modify, modulate and adapt their teaching.’
In Australia we have one of the most complex varieties of a national communication ecology on Earth.
Basically, we have the world’s dominant language, English, as our national language. Unlike other English speaking countries English in Australia is mostly geographically uniform, meaning that Australian English in its standard form varies relatively little across the nation. However, when we look to the spoken varieties of English in their popular forms, we see that Australian English is highly variegated. This means that while it is relatively geographically uniform, Australian English is strongly marked by variation according to social class and ethnicity. There are, for example a very large number of varieties of English spoken by Aboriginal people; there are many ‘mixtures’ of English and Englishes fused with the more than 300 other languages spoken in the kitchens and lounge rooms of Australian homes. The English backstory is very complex in terms of what is inherited, but what is validated in schooling is a major ‘reduction’ of this complexity. Schooling language, understood in the most general terms, and specifically schooled English, is a tight selection made from what’s available in the wider community. This can be called a ‘register’ and perhaps more formally the register of ‘educated, literate speech’ which is the decided form in which knowledge is organised, packaged and conveyed in schooling.
This is the form in which text books are written, formal announcements made, in which public discourse is conducted and education delivered. Actually, it is even more than this, since all these privileges accorded to standard educated literate speech give it a strong cultural, political and economic power and presence in the national society.
This kind of English is quite different from spoken language and ordinary everyday literacies, much looser, less consistent, and more free-flowing, that we see in the wider community. It is important to recognise that these varieties align much more closely with the used forms of some social sectors and populations than with others, conferring advantage on them and disadvantage on others.
So, both literate and spoken language forms favoured in schooling are highly selected from what’s available in the community, and it is these forms that all students encounter. Naturally they encounter these forms differentially. Some learners encounter these forms as a validation and confirmation of their home cultural life, and others encounter them as a significant marker of discrepancy, a challenge, and, unfortunately quite often, as a major obstacle to their prospects of accessing the curriculum and all its stocks of knowledge and skills.
But even this already complex story is only part of the total backstory because we must consider the many other languages, some 300 non-English, non-Aboriginal languages drawn from all parts of the world, that are spoken in the homes of learners in schools. These languages are of course as different from each other as it would be possible for languages to be. These languages are spoken within communities which are highly literate in the formal language literacy sense, though often using a wide variety of orthographic systems that operate with quite different assumptions and practices from the roman alphabetic system English uses. Not all learners and their families are inculcated in the literacy traditions of their language group. Some families share these backstories, others do not, some come from marked varieties of national languages and others might be highly literate and highly multilingual. It is useful to reflect on what assumptions we make about the literate home, what our curriculum expects learners to do and know. Teachers should always try to know about the communication ecology of their learners, and will always find important information on which to modify, modulate and adapt their teaching. We cannot ignore the cognitive and communicative worlds of people, children or adults, we are attempting to teach, even if we can’t ourselves be expected to be skilled in all of those languages and literacies.
So, here we see the expanding scope of communication ecology, a wide range within English, within literacy, within languages and among learners.
We know that communities in Australia who are connected to diverse languages are at different stages and in different relationships with those languages. Some are losing their language skills, experiencing subtractive bilingualism as the home non-English language is being replaced by English. Other communities, or single families, are experiencing additive bilingualism, a process in which they are retaining their first language as they acquire English. This process complicates the backstory because it locates it on a time continuum, a diachronic axis, rather than seeing the language, the family and the communication in the here and now, synchronically. We are here beginning to look at the communication ecology diachronically, over time. This of course is important to teaching, which is an investment in the future. Teachers produce the communication skills of the next generation, of the future, but they do it in the here and now. In relation to Indigenous languages, the very complex category of Australian Aboriginal languages, of which more than fifty are still spoken by children, subtractive bilingualism is widespread, and usually results not only in the cessation of use of the language by that family, community or individual, but of the world, since these are unique languages.
This forbiddingly diverse communication ecology is a backstory like no other. It is the foundation from which learners learn.
We can’t anymore sustain the fiction that learning begins at school and that the primary vehicle of learning is the teaching language, meaning English in Australia.
In translanguaging learners bring all their languages, all their semiotic resources, to the task of learning. In individual cases these might be a fading or a strong home language, a dialectal variety of a home language or a highly literate version of it, a variety of English that is stigmatised and is embarrassing for the learner, subjecting him or her to ridicule, a strong language other than English which is privileged in public esteem and rewarded by the admiration of school teachers.