October 2020

The Nation Reviewed

A minor language

By André Dao
A minor language
If Footscray Primary’s Vietnamese program ends, what else is lost?

For 15 years, Chau Cong’s students at Footscray Primary School practised their Vietnamese by walking a few hundred metres down the road to order bánh mì for lunch. She had to arrange it beforehand to find a quiet time – not easy when the bánh mì shops feature so heavily in lifestyle magazine descriptions of Footscray as one of the world’s “coolest neighbourhoods”. Cong’s association with the school dates back to 1997, as a teacher’s aide when Footscray Primary formally became one of Victoria’s designated bilingual schools. She returned in 2003 as a teacher and coordinator of the bilingual program, and co-created a language-learning curriculum that was used across the bilingual school network. The key, says Cong, was to mirror the English curriculum. Rather than being separate from the mainstream curriculum, students learnt to read and write in both languages at once. Lessons in one language reinforced lessons in the other. Cong is at pains to point out that in many other countries this is standard practice. “Look at Europe or Canada,” she says. “Bilingual education is an old thing – nothing new.”

Both local parents and the education department considered the Footscray Primary model a success. But times – and neighbourhoods – change. Drawn in part by Footscray’s celebrated multiculturalism, more affluent, whiter families are moving in. And while teaching Vietnamese made sense when Footscray was a resettlement hub for refugees from Vietnam, the new families want their children to learn a more “global” language. That was the opening premise of a report by Associate Professor Russell Cross and Dr Julie Hamston from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. The report, delivered in March as part of a wider analysis of Victoria’s designated bilingual programs and shared by the school leadership with school council members and teachers, recommended that Footscray Primary replace its Vietnamese bilingual program with Japanese or Italian. In fact, the report painted a picture of an already marginal language in decline. Fewer students were studying Vietnamese at all levels, from primary to university. From those numbers flowed the damning finding: there were only 16 government primary-school teachers of Vietnamese across the state. In contrast, there were 351 teachers of Japanese and 337 teachers of Italian.

In April, as students, parents and teachers settled into lockdown’s learning-from-home requirements, families at Footscray Primary received a newsletter announcing the “emotionally difficult decision” to drop Vietnamese as the target language. To be successful, the school said it had to adopt a “commonly taught” language. By July, the school council had made its decision. From 2021, Footscray Primary will be a bilingual Italian school, with next year’s foundation students learning 50 per cent of their curriculum in the second language. A 23-year history of bilingual Vietnamese education – the only one of its kind in Australia – has come to an end.

The Cross–Hamston report characterises community concerns about history and links to the local community as misunderstanding the purpose of bilingual education, which needs to be focused on “academic outcomes” as well. The suggestion seems to be that defenders of Footscray’s bilingual program are simply Vietnamese chauvinists. Education policy, so the thinking goes, has to rise above such ethnic lobbying to see all languages as interchangeable and abstracted from context and community.

Though the education department’s response is more circumspect, the subtext is the same: be reasonable. A department spokesperson says that the school has made “significant and continued efforts” to employ Vietnamese bilingual teachers but has faced “ongoing recruitment challenges”.

Still, doubts persist. An online petition started by parent Tony Bui, calling for the Vietnamese program to be reinstated, had more than 14,000 signatures at the time of writing. In the comments, and in private conversations, local parents – both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese – are dubious about the justifications given for replacing an Asian language with a European one. As one of those parents myself – it’s our local primary school – I had been looking forward to my children being immersed in the language of their grandparents, their ông bà nội. I’m disappointed, of course, but the feelings of doubt go deeper than that, to questions of class and race that find no acknowledgement, let alone answers, in the official response.

The Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong has described such emotions as “minor feelings” – “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic” that arise in the face of persistent and official undermining of one’s perception of reality. These minor feelings are “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience”, residue that in my case includes the story my parents tell about being chided over the phone by a preschool teacher for speaking too much Vietnamese at home, and the time in high school when my reward for getting the top mark in literature was to be congratulated in front of the class by a much-loved elderly teacher for my surprisingly good English.

Beneath the smooth façade of the school’s decision (which the department spokesperson described as “the result of an extensive community consultation process”) there is plenty of sediment. The official responses don’t mention that this was actually the second attempt at axing Vietnamese from Footscray Primary. Back in 2016, the principal declared that, from the following year, the school would no longer be bilingual at all. The intention was to focus more heavily on English literacy, and bilingual hours were seen as wasted time.

Following a parent-led campaign, the department intervened, reinstating the program and assigning an additional $150,000 to the school above its ordinary bilingual funding allocation in 2017 and 2018. Still, without the enthusiastic support of school leadership, the program struggled. The reinstated program was never delivered consistently. High staff turnover didn’t help. Cong is adamant that recruitment is difficult for all bilingual schools, no matter the language. But the specific problem at Footscray was with staff retention. Why did six Vietnamese teachers leave the school between 2018 and 2019? That they immediately found new jobs, often at other bilingual schools, suggests that teaching ability wasn’t the issue. Cong, for instance, left at the end of 2018 to take up a position as an English teacher at Camberwell Primary School, where she puts the French she learnt growing up in Vietnam to use in its bilingual program.

According to the Cross–Hamston report, families often expressed a preference for “world languages”, including Japanese and Italian. (The Footscray Primary website also cites the perception that Italian is easy to learn as a reason for the switch.) By implication, Vietnamese is parochial, what language education experts call a “community language”. But what makes Italian more global than Vietnamese? Both languages are spoken beyond their home countries in diasporas around the world, without being dominant anywhere away from home. In fact, there are more Vietnamese speakers than Italian speakers around the world.

Instead, the difference seems to lie in the more nebulous concept of prestige. In an interview for an ABC Radio series on multilingualism in Australia, Tongue Tied and Fluent, the University of Sydney’s Professor Ken Cruickshank explains that fluency in French or German is seen as a marker of prestige, whereas fluency in Chinese languages or Japanese is seen in terms of academic competition. The logic of this distinction is that the study of community languages is dominated by members of the relevant ethnic community, whose mother-tongue proficiency affords them an advantage. That there is also a racial dynamic is revealed when Cruickshank is pressed on the status of Japanese: it’s true, he says, that the language is considered prestigious, but the speakers are not. To put it plainly: a community language is one predominantly spoken by black and brown bodies.

The distinction between “world” and “community” languages is at play when the Cross–Hamston report leads with statistics on the changing ethnic composition of Footscray, and again when it is suggested by the school that a compromise Vietnamese LOTE (Languages Other Than English) program of two hours a week be taught to current students and thereafter offered only if there is interest from new families. The perception seems to be that teaching Vietnamese to Vietnamese refugees and their children is one thing, but as the suburb and the school grow more affluent – and more white – a more prestigious, global language is needed. What this story elides is that Vietnamese is still, by far, Footscray’s most commonly spoken language at home other than English, and that Vietnamese is more popular than Italian at senior secondary level in Victoria.

To defend the Vietnamese bilingual program is to be speaking in a register that is foreign to the education department and its experts, and to many of the new families moving into Footscray. It is to see language as deeply connected to people and places, and the learning of language as something more than a certificate to be put on a wall – more even than as a passport for the individual student. The conversation around Footscray’s bilingual program reflects a consumerist approach to multiculturalism in which languages are ranked according to purchasing power. In that calculation, imperial languages will always come out on top. Do Australians need further education in seeing and speaking the world in a dominant language? Speakers of “minor languages”, on the other hand, know things the majority do not. They know, for instance, that culture and community are precious – and need taking care of.

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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