What is language?
The nature of language has been described in many ways ranging from personal and poetic to scientific and technical definitions. Language is the most important and versatile means which human beings have to express their sentiments, their intellect, their discoveries, their theories, their own personalities. Language reflects the work, needs, joys, affections, fears, expectations and tastes of generations of humanity. When we study language we study the manner in which human beings express themselves. We study a system of communication which enables us to convey feelings and facts to one another, to react and comment, to agree or disagree, to accept or to reject. It is in the nature of language systems to change and develop constantly, to adjust to changes in society and therefore to be representative of that same society. Language reflects the social structure, the decorum, the accepted values of society. Language is therefore personal as well as group-orientated, specific as well as universal.
When describing a language we may decide to refer to a system of sounds, sound combinations, the sequence of syllables, the position and meaning of words. Phonology, semantics, syntax and lexicon represent the interests of linguists (Akmajian et al., 1979; Chomsky, 1957, 1972; Lyons, 1981; Marchand, 1969; Newmeyer, 1981).
Applied linguistics is the study of that which societies do with language, how they learn and teach language. Applied linguists analyse speech acts, discourse, metaphors, idioms, accents, dialects, slang and registers, i.e. the variations in the application of language. (Austin, 1962; Brown and Yule, 1983; Burling, 1970; Clyne, 1976; Collins and Blair, 1989; Gregory and Carroll, 1978; Mitchell and Delbridge, 1965; Pauwels, 1987; Thorne et al., 1983; Treble and Vallins, 1936; Wardhaugh, 1986).
Applied linguists are also interested in second language acquisition. They study how, when, for how long, by whom second and foreign languages are acquired and for what specific purposes they are learned. Applied linguists examine language and its acquisition in educational, social and functional context and speculate on the effects which the learning of language - be that first, second, foreign, third or any language for specific purposes - has on the learner, the teacher, on education, on the economy, on the interaction between individuals, on the relationship of individuals within a society, as well as on the perception which individuals have of themselves in relation to their own and to other societies. (Allen and Harley, 1992; Anderson Curtain and Pesola, 1988; Brinton et al., 1989; Brumfit, 1984; Byrnes, 1992; Chastain, 1976; Cohen, 1990; Ervin, 1990; Krashen 1982; Lightbown and Spada, 1993; Littlewood, 1981; Nunan, 1989; Oxford, 1990; Scarino et al., 1988; Snyder, 1986; Tarone and Yule, 1989).
The purpose of this paper is to examine how socio-economic aspects determine the language policies of the Australian society and how these policies reflect both the expectations which this society has of the benefits of foreign and second language learning and the perception it has of itself, its multi-lingual members and the minority languages spoken by them.
Why language policies?
Language policies are generally formulated in order to establish the language needs of a society. They also articulate the educational, social and economic expectations associated with the establishment of a pool of target language speakers. Language policies identify priority, majority and minority languages and nominate target situations for which second/foreign language learners need to be prepared. In addition, language policies define desirable proficiency levels to be achieved in the target language and they state how the needs of learners can best be met through appropriate teaching methods and models (Lo Bianco, 1987).
The need for governments to formulate national language policies arises principally from two situations. A country whose majority language constitutes a minority language outside this country, needs to formulate a language policy which protects this national language against the influences of larger, more prominent language groups in neighbouring countries (Wright, 1995, pp. 150-1). On the other hand, small-language-countries need to decide which and how many other languages should be taught in their schools and tertiary institutions in order to enable small-language-speakers to compete with other, major-language-nations within a global economy (Wright, 1995, pp. 152-3). The language policies of the European Union are one example of how both linguistic nationalism and economic and political globalisation are reflected in language policies. The former Soviet Union was another.
The second situation in which governments need to formulate a national language policy exists in countries with large groups of immigrants and a continuous shift in population due to ongoing immigration. In such cases language policies need to establish procedures to ensure that immigrants acquire the language of the majority. Also, the language policies of these countries need to define the status and the maintenance procedures of the languages of immigrant groups. (Fishman, 1976; Lo Bianco, 1987).
Australia is an example of such a country. It has large immigrant groups. The Australian government therefore developed language policies appropriate to varying political, social and economic situations. …