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Review of Language Planning and Student Experiences
Lo Bianco and Aliani, professors at the University of Melbourne, combine historical and rhetorical analyses of forty years of language planning in Australia with the quantitative and qualitative results of five years of fieldwork in four public schools to demonstrate the gap between official language policies and their implementation in classrooms. Their primary focus is on how various language policies have been “received, perceived and enacted in schools and among learners” (p. xv). They explain the need for policy implementation to be seen as “a more active and agentive space” (p. 41) and underscore the necessity of including public debate, media depictions, citizen advocacy actions, and attitudes of parents, teachers, and students in any comprehensive account of the country’s language planning efforts.
The book consists of a preface, establishing the aims, limitations, and research questions, followed by five chapters. Chapter 1 (Remaking a nation through language policy texts, debate, behaviour) explains the distinction between the intention, interpretation, and implementation of a language policy. It reviews, in detail, three recent major governmental language policy declarations pertaining to the teaching of foreign and indigenous languages in Australia (i.e. The National Statement and Plan for Languages of 2005, the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program of 2008, and the National Indigenous Languages Policy of 2009), contextualizing them within local political visions of the “new Australia” within the “Asian century” as well as global trends in economic development and population movement. Recurrent concepts such as “Asia literacy” (i.e. the idea that Australia is part of Asia and needs to be in tune with regional concerns) and “multiculturalism” (i.e. the notion that Australia is linguistically and culturally diverse and should stay that way) are explored. The chapter also discusses the language policy implications of the following: the Australia 2020 Summit of 2008, which sought to reconstruct Australia into a “new” nation via economic renewal and regional integration; the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century of 2012, which focused on the harnessing of education and culture to support regional “engagement”; and the National Curriculum of 2013, which included all three language policies and prioritized the study of Asian and indigenous languages and cultures. The chapter additionally examines the many disincentives for language study in the “Anglosphere” and gives an overview of the multi-strand methodology utilized in this study.
Chapter 2 (Australia’s Italian and Japanese) traces the history of foreign language (FL) teaching in Australia, focusing on the most commonly taught languages (i.e. Italian and Japanese) without neglecting the efforts to teach Chinese, Indonesian, German, and French. The authors compare different reactions to Italian, a “heritage” language with a strong immigrant community, and Japanese, a trade language with vital regional economic importance. They also explain the language teaching curriculum of the state of Victoria, which has two dimensions (i.e. communication and cultural/linguistic awareness) and two possible pathways (i.e. FL teaching beginning in elementary school and continuing to year 10 versus FL teaching beginning and ending at the high school level).
Chapter 3 (The research approach and the schools) describes the four schools in lower to middle class neighborhoods of Melbourne, Victoria that were studied between 2005 and 2011. It states the principal aims of the research, namely: determining why the ambitious national language policies had such uneven success; documenting the sociologies of Italian and Japanese in Australia; providing evidence for how language policies played out in schools; and investigating how student reactions could be made a vital component of language policymaking. The chapter elucidates the research methodology which wove together document analysis, analysis of public discourse, language attitude surveys of teachers, students, and parents, student language journals, focus group discussions, and Q-sorts (in which students were asked to sort and rank 25 statements of opinion uttered by them during focus group sessions). The chapter closes with a report of the quantitative results from the surveys of the 147 primary school students and 648 secondary school students who participated in the study.
Chapter 4 (Student subjectivity) is an in-depth analysis of the data from the focus group discussions and the Q-sorts carried out by 48 of the most and the least motivated students in the two high schools studied. The 25 statements of opinion concerned teachers’ qualifications and classroom control capabilities, the components of the FL curriculum, the value of learning other languages, and students’ personal experiences while studying languages in school. Results of the analysis indicated that students taking Italian considered that learning Italian was “cool,” easier than Japanese, and useful for future jobs, but they also felt the classes were too easy (“a bludge”), needed more activities, and lacked genuine parental support. The students learning Japanese were also convinced of the future practical utility of the language, but wanted more cultural excursions and naturalistic communication opportunities. Furthermore, they expressed concern about the Japanese teachers’ quiet teaching styles, which often led to classroom chaos, the overly rapid pace of lessons, and the compulsory nature of the courses, which meant that otherwise unmotivated students dragged down the rest by their lack of interest or ability in the language. In general, students of both languages were very open in ‘talking back’ to the language policies (p. 120). While they were supportive of the broad aims of the language program, they did not consider that their language learning efforts were ultimately likely to be successful. They called for more systematic and higher quality learning experiences.
Chapter 5 (Pushing policy to be real) tries to account for the perceived failure of foreign language teaching in Australia despite support from all political parties, consistent funding, and lack of overt opposition from teachers and parents. It utilizes an ecological model to demonstrate the growing gulf between policymaking and policy implementation in Australia and makes the point that the government needs to do much more to promote the value of language learning among its citizenry, obtain the whole-hearted commitment of teachers and students, increase continuity between primary and high school FL training, and pay more attention to student views.
This book will be a welcome resource for all those interested in the processes of language planning and policymaking, including teachers of foreign or indigenous languages, directors of bilingual schools, applied and educational linguists, sociologists and anthropologists focused on educational settings, micro-ethnographers, and curriculum designers in linguistically diverse schools, as well as those scholars specifically interested in Australian education or policymaking. While brief, it packs considerable useful information into a very accessible and well-organized format and neatly complements existing sources like McCarty (2010), Anderson (2009), and Heath, Street, & Mills (2008).
Among the chief merits of the book are: (1) its careful historical analysis of language policies promoted by different Australian Prime Ministers and how they were interpreted by the general public and media; and (2) its presentation of the relatively unknown methodology of Q-sorts, which utilizes special software (PCQ) to do correlations and factor analysis of points of view and shared beliefs, employing categories generated by the participants rather than the researchers.
The only noticeable shortcomings were the brevity of the volume, which leaves one hungry for more ethnographic details about the students and their communities, and the lack of indication of the number of teachers (of foreign languages and other content areas), administrators, and parents who participated in the surveys. It would also have been good to have reported on the reactions of each group of “stakeholders” to the study itself, thus giving further voice to the ignored interpreters and targets of the language policies.
The research carried out by Lo Bianco and Aliani has serious implications for Australian and general language policymaking. The prime lessons to take away from the book are that governments need to utilize trained language planners to avoid facile solutions to complex language teaching problems and also need to include teachers, students, and parents in the policymaking process. As Lo Bianco and Aliani indicate: “If teachers and (especially) students withdraw interest, withhold commitment, deny enthusiasm to the purposes of language policy by ‘failing to learn’, then authoritative official texts, Prime Ministerial White Papers and vigorous public discourse are made vulnerable to ‘catastrophic decline’” (p. 126).
This book should stimulate future language policy research in other countries that are noticing major slippage between the goals of articulated policy and actual classroom results (e.g. the United States and Britain). It should also prove useful in further elaborating existing language planning theories or models, since it stresses that there should be “constant iteration between school and nation, policy and practice” (p. 132). Finally, it should be of great assistance to language education planners who wish to democratize and increase the efficacy of the planning process by integrating bottom-up perspectives with top-down directives.
Anderson. Kimberly S. 2009. War or common cause? A critical ethnography of language education policy, race, and cultural citizenship. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Heath, Shirley Brice, Street, Brian V., & Mills, Molly. 2008. On ethnography: Approaches to language and literacy research. New York: Teachers College Press.
McCarty, Teresa. 2010. Ethnography and language policy. New York: Routledge.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Alicia Pousada received her M. A. and Ph. D. in Educational Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1987, she has taught linguistics in the English Department of the College of Humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Her publications and presentations focus on language policy and planning, multilingualism, and teaching of English as an Auxiliary Language world-wide.