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Auteur: Diana GUILLEMIN

Co-Auteur(s): Susana EISENCHLAS, Griffith University, Australia Andrea SCHALLEY, Griffith University, Australia

The Challenge of ‘Literacy for all’ in Multicultural Australia: The last 25 years

Abstract/Résumé: Australia is one of the most linguistically diverse nations in the world, with 350 new languages introduced through immigration since WWII. Approximately 27% of the 23 million population was born overseas, with a further 20% having at least one parent born overseas; 19% of the population over five years of age speaks languages other than English at home, with 2% not speaking English at all. Despite being at the forefront of language policy and development, Australia lags behind other English speaking nations with regards to literacy, with 25% of year 4 students failing to meet the minimum reading standard for their age. Minority language speaking children (first and second generation migrants and refugees) represent one of the most vulnerable groups with respect to achieving adequate levels of literacy for lifelong learning. Whilst the 1987 Australian National Policy on Languages encouraged the teaching of migrant languages in schools, the emphasis on cultural diversity and multilingualism was later abandoned in favour of assimilationist policies that focussed exclusively on English literacy. Multilingualism was perceived as a hindrance. In this paper, we examine the different government policies and plans developed in the past 25 years to address the challenge of offering “Literacy for all” in the context of the Australian linguistic and cultural diversity. As we will show in the discussion of subsequent initiatives such as “Literacy for all” (1998), formulated to target the needs of all Australians, the particular needs of minority language speakers are barely mentioned and community languages are conspicuously absent from the discussion. This indicates that the cultural and linguistic diversity that resulted from recent migrant intakes have had little impact on the Australian educational policy, which remains strongly assimilationist in its goals and perspectives and fails to recognise that for students whose first language is not English learning literacy in English involves learning a second language. It also documents that the assimilationist language policies of the last 25 years have failed to recognize the cognitive advantages of bilingualism/multilingualism, and the value of home languages to promote the acquisition of literacy in the early years. We believe that a change of attitude is required, and that there is a need for policies that promote the participation of teachers, parents, and community members, in maintaining home languages to enhance the acquisition of literacy.