There is a different sort of infection in the English-speaking world – it’s not a pandemic, but it is an epidemic – it’s limiting condition called ‘monolingual mindset’.

The term was first coined in German as monolingualer Habitus by Ingrid Gogolin in 1997 and introduced to English discourse as ‘monolingual mindset’ by Michael Clyne in 2004. Naturally, most English speakers only know about the English translation…

While the use of the term ‘mindset’ offers a close translation to the original, monolingualer ‘Habitus’ has its roots in Bordieuan thinking. According to Glaesser and Cooper (2014), the concept of habitus was developed by Bourdieu around 1977 and is ‘a system of lasting dispositions acquired through past experiences’. Bourdieu’s (2000) theory focussed on socioeconomic life experiences, while he acknowledged other aspects, such as gender and cultural experiences, he stopped short of encoding it into the relationship between field (social/professional/educational setting) and the set of customs or conventions the setting produces (Miller, 1996). Nevertheless, research has established that these ‘fields’ interact in a mutually causative interplay beyond economics to include gender expectations (Miller, 1996) and cultural expectations (Gogolin, 1994) – perpetuating limiting stereotypes in both instances.

Explaining monolingualer ‘Habitus’

Gogolin’s (1994) conception of monolingualer Habitus describes a situation where – as with Bourdieu’s theory of habitus – ‘cognitive and normative predispositions’ arise as a result of social conditioning – but of the linguistic kind.  While Bourdieu referred to (pre)dispositions which ‘varied systematically between individuals from different social classes’, Gogolin applied this idea to languages and claimed that these attitudes and habits vary according to their past and present language ecologies – the matrix (or perhaps mosaic, depending on how you see the world) of language experiences (Simpson, 2019). In this case, habitus is formed not by the ‘material conditions of existence’, as with Bourdieu– in the sense of ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, but, rather, by the ‘linguistic’ conditions of existence – how you have been linguistically socialised determines your linguistic ‘habitus’ (or mindset).  If you have been raised to believe that speaking several languages is normal and necessary, then you will see languages as a natural part of life. If you have been socialised to believe that English is enough to thrive, well, then, you will be far from alone, but not quite correct. 

A bit of background on habitus in education

Glaesser and Cooper drew on habitus theory to help explain educational decision-making in England and Germany. They claimed that ‘these deeply ingrained dispositions influence, among other things, individuals’ attitudes towards curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, and importantly, also influence how schools behave towards children from different class backgrounds’. They said students who came from a privileged background, for example, expected certain things and had attitudes to learning that differed from working class students. Importantly, these predispositions extended to how schools treated children. Clearly, habitus can be a tad dangerous, probably insidious and worth taking a good look at – which they did. 

How can habitus affect linguistically diverse students as well as monolingual ones?

It’s also worth taking a look at how monolingual mindset affects us as Australians, as individuals in a class, as teachers, school leaders, and as policy makers. Policy is an interesting point, and I might start there. A cursory analysis of languages related policy in Australia over the past 60 years tells a grim tale. In the 60s, a language was compulsory for entry into university. Following a change to that policy, enrolments in languages education plummeted. We once had 60% of students taking senior languages, and now it is roughly 10%. Pause for a minute to consider that more Year 12 students go to on to university study now than ever before so that 60% may well have largely represented those who went to university. So why the exodus as soon as it was not compulsory anymore and why the policy shift at all? 

Crucially, actions are constrained or enabled by habitus, and that habitus determines which goals are considered desirable or reasonable. It seems that neither policy makers or individual students think languages are particularly desirable or reasonable. 

So how did this happen? 

If Glasser and Cooper’s thinking is applied to the situation with languages education in Australia, we might conclude that the monolingual habitus of the roughly 73 percent of Australian residents who report speaking only English in the home (ABS, 2016) has reduced the conception of learning additional languages to something which is neither desirable nor (reasonable) likely to be successful. This has led to a situation where it was not only appropriate, but necessary, for a certain Professor John Hajek’s keynote presentation at a major language teacher conference to focus not of the latest and best ways to teach languages, but instead, a toolkit to motivate Australia back into the arms of languages (Hajek, 2018). 

Hajek (2018) referenced the barrage of resistance, due, in part, to the ‘Anglophone paradox’ of privilege which allows us to remain monolingual and get by (somewhat oblivious to what we are missing) within our ‘Anglobubble’ (Clyne, 2004; Gogolin, 1994; Hajek, 2018, p.14; p.15). This allows for a minority (monolinguals) to see their unilingual status as the default setting … or ‘normal’.

In other words, despite monolinguals being a global minority, those with a monolingual mindset see additional languages as ‘extra’ to requirements and, frankly, too hard.  Unfortunately, this also means they see languages other than English as abnormal or unnecessary, which has implications for our multilingual Australians. 

Australia is not monolingual 

The thing is… Australia is actually a multilingual country. It’s just dominated by a system which privileges English over other languages. It should be noted that societal multilingualism isn’t evenly distributed – the 400 or so languages we enjoy in Australia, we owe to first- and second-generation immigrants and Indigenous communities. However, the linguistic richness from these parts of Australia is a wasted resource – and with regard to the Indigenous languages, frankly, on stolen land, it’s just disrespectful to privilege English in the classroom, but that’s another blog. 

So, sometimes politicians realise all this. They listen to languages academics, teachers and communities and develop policies to address our withering systemic monolingualism – but governments change; new curriculum is developed, and that policy marches off into the horizon to be replaced by the next in line.  Despite this ‘parade’ of policies, improvements to languages education in Australia have been obstructed by a ‘fundamental challenge’ – the pervasive monolingual orientation (or mindset) of public and political discourse (Lo Bianco and Slaughter, 2009).

Why does it matter? 

Because the world needs to communicate, relate and cooperate, and if we are always on the backfoot linguistically, we are either disadvantaging ourselves or allowing others to carry out linguistic burden – usually both simultaneously. Globally, multilingualism and intercultural understanding are increasingly being viewed as desirable skills and the call for global citizenship-focussed education has gained (OECD, 2020). While the non-English speaking world has always valued the ability to communicate cross-culturally, English speakers have been able to rely on the linguistic labour of others (Byram, 1997). English has been ‘enough’ to participate in ‘a world made increasingly safe for Anglophones’ (Clyne, 2005; Edwards, 2011, p. 24). 

In a limited sense, participation is absolutely possible! When we travel, there are few corners of the earth now where nobody is speaking our language – but English dominance ‘hurts’ us all. On one hand, the failure of English to exist above the power imbalance created by a history of global colonising has effected a kind of ‘neocolonialism’ in shared international discourses. When global discourse in in English, whether it’s academic writing, the global media, the arts, or international sport, the dominant are empowered and the disadvantaged are left further behind (Guo & Beckett, 2007). What might not be realised though is that monolingual English speakers are also missing out as result of their ‘privilege’. 

Benefits to society of a multilingualism

We’re also out of step with the rest of the world. International support for a plurilingual future is apparent in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing for ‘Global Competence’. You know that test that names and shames our 15-year-olds every few years, highlighting how many ‘lesser countries’ we have slipped behind as we all hail Singapore and Finland for their top results? Well, the most recent test was for global competence and one of the skills listed was the ability to speak additional languages – though, notably, ‘Australia participated in the assessment of financial literacy but not global competency ’(the report is here).

Languages is good for your brain anyway (and PISA)

Languages education and being plurilingual are associated with various enhanced cognitive capacities, including many so-called ‘21st century skills’ touted to furnish graduates with requirements necessary to advance Australia’s interests on the global stage (ACARA, 2019; Grainger & Christie, 2015; Halse, 2015; Salter, 2014a).  In economic terms alone, these are sound reasons to value the ability to interact across languages and cultures.  European marketers have long understood that marketing must occur in the language of your market. As erstwhile West German Chancellor Willy Brandt said, ‘if I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you must speak German]’ (Haas, 2002, p. 632). 

There is also ample evidence to support the positive impact of language study on first language literacy, critical thinking and mental agility (ACARA, 2019; O’Brien et al., 2017; Lo Bianco & Slaughter, 2009; Morgan et al 2016), which are also tested in PISA and are included as general capabilities in our own Australian Curriculum. Yet, systemic neglect and lack of commitment to languages as a mandatory subject with the same status as mathematics or science has seen Year 12 Languages enrolments plummet from 60 percent in the late 1960s to the dismal 10 percent today. 

While the statistics at the far end of the school education cycle may seem grim, the recent policy focus on early years language learning might be evidence that the penny has dropped. The federally funded Early Learning Languages Australia program (ELLA), a digital play-based app program was first trialled in preschools in 2015. In line with advice provided to the Australian Government by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) and additional external and stakeholder reviews, the program has been expanded to include students from Foundation to Year 2 from 300 schools across Australia from 2019. Strong commitment to early years programs in several states and territories is also encouraging (National languages plan and strategy, 2019). 

Languages and intercultural education in the curriculum

Ending on a hopeful note, there is more good news. There is an emerging discourse of urgency regarding the development of ‘21st century’ interpersonal and intercultural capabilities. Yay! 

Briefly, the Australian Curriculum has been designed with 8 regular learning areas – you know, Maths, Science, English etc. and two other dimensions of embedded content. These are called Cross Curriculum Priorities (CCP) and the General Capabilities (GC), and they are to be incorporated into the learning areas by teachers. Of the 3 CCPs, two are language and culture-focussed (Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures) and there is an entire General Capability called ‘Intercultural Understanding’. There are some issues with how teachers are expected to implement these dimensions into learning areas (see Salter & Maxwell, 2015) — nevertheless , I am going to end on a positive note and deal with that another day.

There is so much more to say, but this is already too long, so I will just say this to finish. Habitus is often unconscious, but it is a formidable force that determines attitudes and beliefs. Overcoming monolingual mindset has the power to not only open monolinguals up to a world of colour and passion, but it has the potential to democratise Australian education by recoding multilingualism as the asset that it is.