How to harness Sydney’s many languages to improve outcomes for students, strengthen social fabric and drive economic growth.

Contrary to the stereotype of a monolingual Australia, one of the great untold stories of Sydney is its untapped wealth of language skills. In Sydney’s schools alone, more than half the city’s students have a background in at least one or more languages other than English, as do a third or so of their teachers.

In Europe, the many social, economic and cultural benefits of multiple languages -- both co-existing side by side and interacting -- is widely recognised. In Sydney, the potential of multilingualism has, until recently, been largely overlooked.

A new academic book edited by Macquarie University’s Alice Chik, Phil Benson and Robyn Moloney – Multilingual Sydney (Routledge, due out in June 2018) aims to firmly establish Sydney as a rich ground for multilingualism research and MQ’s Multilingualism Research Group as a leader in the field.

The book reimagines Sydney’s language map, overturning perceptions of a large city with many small, disconnected pockets of foreign languages that inevitably die out as migrant communities assimilate. Instead, it envisions Sydney as a dynamic metropolis in which numerous languages are used and shared as multilingual Sydneysiders engage with each other.

This is particularly important in education, said Dr Chik. “Amongst the great unrecognised skills in our schools are the (home) languages of our students and teachers.”

With the uneven distribution of Sydney’s languages, in some schools more than 95% of students have a non-English speaking background. There are 226 different languages[i] other than English among NSW students, including large groups with a language background of Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi, Tagalog, Greek, Spanish and Italian. Yet, such language and cultural identities are largely invisible in the classroom and the curriculum.

Paradoxically, politicians and policy-makers regularly bemoan the long-term decline in formal foreign language studies in NSW schools and the ‘monolingual mindset’[ii] which accompanies it. In NSW, less than 10% of students now elect to study a foreign language at HSC level, down from about 40% in the 1960s. In the meantime, however, tens of thousands of Sydney children attend community language classes out of school hours.

How, then, do we harness Sydney’s rich mix of languages to improve experiences and outcomes for our students, to strengthen the city’s social fabric and to drive economic growth?

One useful starting point, said Dr Robyn Moloney, is to recognise that effective learning depends on ‘engaging the whole child’. This means that teachers need to recognise and include students’ linguistic backgrounds in classroom discussions, experiences and lessons. Unless Sydney’s multilingual identities become part of learning, opportunities for educational engagement with Sydney’s diverse students are lost.

Dr Chik believes reaching out to teachers, and those in teacher training, is also essential. Many teachers have their own multilingual stories to tell which are potentially useful in better engaging and supporting new English learners and in understanding their challenges. New partnerships are also being forged between MQ’s Multilingualism Research Group and the community language school sector, which plays a critical role in language education in Sydney.

With a better understanding of Sydney’s many languages, services could also be improved by matching, for example, healthcare or aged care staff with additional language skills to migrant patients who would benefit enormously from their support.

Ultimately, transforming multilingualism in Sydney into a real asset will take public recognition of its value, and the realisation that a monolingual mindset only narrows our options and worldview, Drs Chik and Moloney said.

Dr Chik’s research focuses on the acquisition of a second language. She has also investigated interaction between young people online, and their ability to learn from each other and switch between languages. Dr Chik completed her PhD in Hong Kong and is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at MQ.

Dr Moloney brings the insights of her experience as a modern language teacher (French, German, Japanese) in NSW high schools to her position as Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at MQ. At MQ, her research focuses on language pedagogy, language teacher development, intercultural competencies and literacy in multicultural societies.


[i] https://www.cese.nsw.gov.au/images/stories/PDF/LBOTE_bulletin_2016.pdf

[ii] https://www.smh.com.au/education/why-students-are-turning-away-from-learning-foreign-languages-20160610-gpg6ek.html

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Last updated: 12 Mar 2020