Having published Joseph Lo Bianco and Renata Aliani’s book Language Planning and Student Experiences in June, we asked Joseph to answer a few questions about the research.
Why do you think Australia is a particularly interesting country to research?
Australia is interesting because of the energy it has injected into language policy. We have had 67 initiatives since 1970! It is also the case that our national language planning has been ambitious, aiming to teach a large number of languages, and because of the unique indigenous language context. Asian studies has also been an enduring priority of government, but the results are far from satisfactory.
What do you think policymakers in other countries can learn from Australia’s example?
Because Australia has tried to do comprehensive language planning I think our experience is interesting and relevant to other countries. We have tried to encompass the national language (English), minority languages (both immigrant and indigenous), foreign languages (Asian and European) and a range of language services. In this wide array some important lessons have been learned and all countries increasingly face similar challenges under globalisation.
Why is language policy such a contentious issue in multilingual communities?
Because languages are like no other human social construct. Languages are both tools and symbols, languages mediate both material and symbolic worlds, what I mean by this is that languages are both very practical, helping or hindering access to jobs and social opportunities and also markers of belonging and identity. Quite a few policy fields are contentious of course, but languages have some very special dimensions to do with the multiple ways they impinge on our lives.
Why is the relationship between policy makers and those implementing the policies i.e. teachers a difficult one?
This is a key focus of the book Renata and I have written. I think one of the key reasons for this difficulty is that teachers are seen by many policy makers as mere implementers of policy that they determine. In reality it isn’t like that at all. If teachers don’t share the goals of language or literacy policy, or even if they are only half-hearted about the policy, the chances of policy makers achieving their goals are drastically undermined. I think that teachers have a kind of reserve power, if they withhold enthusiasm, how can a distant, temporary, Minister of Education achieve what he or she wants? There are other complications in this relationship. One of them is that teachers and teaching is in fact a kind of language planning too.
What makes your book different from others that have been published before?
Some language planners still debate whether the ‘micro’ level of the school can be considered a language policy site. Our research shows that schools, teachers and classrooms are very much part of the ecology of language planning. The book is also different in that it exposes the weakness of the policymaking position; it is powerful in formal ways, controlling money, curriculum and employment, but teachers and teaching, and student learning, are activities with some measure of autonomy.
Which other researchers in your field do you particularly admire?
The list would be too vast to be complete, but Joshua Fishman, Bernard Spolsky come to mind, also Elana Shohamy, Francis Hult, Claire Kramsch, Jan Blommaert, Jef Vershuren, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Mary Kalantzis, Peter Freebody, Nancy Hornberger, Colin Baker, Jiri Neustupny, Francois Grin, Richard Ruiz and Dante Alighieri. OMG I have left nearly everyone off my list!
What is your next research project?
I have a Multilingual Matters book with a Tunisian colleague, Dr Fethi Helal, on language discourses in Tunisia, the place where the remarkable events of the Arab Spring began. We are working closely on analysing how language is implicated in the volatile politics of remaking this amazing North African country. I am also working on a UN project on peacebuilding and language in SE Asia, especially Myanmar, southern Thailand and Malaysia.
If you’re interested in this book click here for more information. You might also be interested in: Language Policy for the Multilingual Classroom edited by Christine Hélot and Muiris Ó Laoire and Language-in-education Policies by Anthony J. Liddicoat.