Harnessing Multilingualism and Linguistic Capital in China and Australia

by Dr. Linda Tsung
CSC academic group:Language, Discourse & Communication

Dr. Linda Tsung is Chair, Department of Chinese Studies with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at University of Sydney. Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong. Dr. Tsung established the initial Bachelor and Master Degrees in Chinese teacher training programs at the University of Sydney. She has a track record in research into Chinese language education, ethnic identities, teacher training and educational outcomes, especially as they affect students from minority backgrounds in China. She is the author of Minority languages, Education and Communities in China, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2009; Teaching and Learning Chinese in Global Contexts, with Cruikshank, K. (Eds.). Continuum: London, 2011.


My main research has been on multilingualism and minority education in China. The aim of this research has been to fill a large empirical gap and contribute to the broader theoretical debate about the educational outcomes of minority students in multilingual education systems. My other research interest is in strategies to miximise the potential of Australia’s linguistic capital amongst its youth.

Multilingualism and Minority Education in China

The study on multilingualism and minority education in China has indicated that the PRC seeks to foster a type of multilingual and multicultural education that tempers nationwide ethnicity. In doing so it has come to a stage of critical pluralism (Postiglione, 1983), a state of interethnic relations that is increasingly sensitive and conflict ridden. The state’s response has been a harmonious society campaign that is aimed at, among other things, alleviating ethnic tensions. However, the instrumental nature of multilingual education fostered by Chinese culturalism continues to drive a process of ethnicization in which minority cultures and languages become excluded or marginalized (Postiglione, 2010).

quote The study on multilingualism and minority education in China has indicated that the PRC seeks to foster a type of multilingual and multicultural education that tempers nationwide ethnicity.

China comprises a highly multilingual and ethnically diverse population. There are 56 nationalities speaking 129 distinct languages (Sun, Hu & Huang 2007). Since 1949, China’s language policy toward minority nationalities has swung from pluralism to assimilation and from accommodation to integration. Tibetan, Mongolian, Korean and Uyghur are categorized as minority languages with functional writing systems broadly used before 1949 and with regular mother tongue education since 1949. Most other minority groups which do not have written scripts normally receive limited mother tongue instruction in primary schools. Along with other researchers, I have found mother tongue education is successful in providing basic education and literacy attainment for those ethnic minorities (Cummins, 2000; Gao, 2010; Thomas & Collier, 1997; Tsung & Cruickshank, 2009).

Since 2000, the policy has shifted away from mother tongue instruction to the promotion of Putonghua (Mandarin) Chinese instruction to these ethnic minorities. There are several reasons for this shift. The “key” to economic prosperity is being perceived these days by many minorities as a Chinese-language education. Resourcing minority language instruction is not easy and a shift away is seen as convenient for some levels of bureaucracy (Feng, 2009). For the minorities to share a common language with the Han Chinese would, it is thought, lead to improved social integration (Lam, 2005).

China's complex system of multilingual education-which includes dual-pathway curricula, bilingual and trilingual instruction, specialized ethnic schools and preferential enrolment quotas-is a linchpin in the Communist party-state’s efforts to keep a lid on simmering tensions (Schluessel, 2007) between minorities and Han Chinese while seeking to transform its rhetoric of harmony into reality. China has entered a stage of “critical pluralism,” an uneasy pivot between inter-ethnic conflict and harmony, and the state school system is now seen as a frontline in the battle to push Chinese society towards a “harmonious multiculturalism”.

There is growing evidence that there are serious educational, social and economic consequences of ethnic minority students becoming further disadvantaged because of a lack of Chinese language comprehension (Tsung 2009). Policy and program initiatives to develop the learning of Chinese as a second language need in-depth review and ongoing assessment as to their objectives, resources and needs if they are to succeed. Further research is currently being undertaken in Qinghai. My study aims to frame the relationship between policy, knowledge (curriculum frameworks and syllabus documents), human resources (the teachers) and potential and existing students.

Maximising the potential of Australia’s linguistic capital

My second research project is “Maximising the potential of Australia’s language resources: exploring and developing languages across sectors, schools and communities” an ARC funded Linkage project in 2011 with A/Professor Ken Cruickshank, Dr Liam Morgan, Professor Janice Wright and Dr Hongling Chen. The project addresses gaps in our knowledge of language resources: the language skills, attitudes and engagement (or non engagement) of young people in language learning (especially background learners in key Asian languages); the language skills and needs of teachers across sectors; and appropriate ways to gauge and accredit languages learning. This study is timely given Australian government initiatives in the recent years.

Bourdieu claims that language is a type of capital, capable of generating “profits” (Lareau and Weininger 2003). The acquisition of linguistic capital is associated with the acquisition of one or more other forms of capital such as economic capital and social capital (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). The struggles over such resources provide the main dynamic through which social stratification and change take place.

quote Less than 2% of Australia’s youth are studying more than one language, something which is the norm in most European and Asian countries

Australia is resource-rich in languages. There is growing evidence that there are serious educational, national security and economic consequences of Australia becoming monolingual. As the Group of Eight (2007: 7) say in their report: ‘If Australia discovered untapped oil and gas reserves, it would be considered foolish to ignore them. Yet Australia does ignore its language resources.’ Australian youth study fewer languages than the youth from other OECD countries. In 2007, only 13.4% of Year 12 students graduated with a language other than English (LOTE), a drop from 40% in the 1960s (MCEETYA 2005). Less than 2% of Australia’s youth are studying more than one language, something which is the norm in most European and Asian countries (Eurydice 2008). Despite globalisation in areas of the economy and education, Australia is even falling behind other countries where English is the primary language. In the US, 44% of high school students study languages through to Year 12 and in the UK just under 50% take a second language for the GCSE (Eurydice 2008). Most worrying are indications that maintenance of many languages other than English spoken in the home is under serious threat. Nearly 17% of Australians speak a language other than English at home, a figure rising to 31.4% in Sydney and 27.9% in Melbourne (Clyne & Fernandez 2005), but this resource is not being developed as children progress through schooling with high attrition rates in the middle years of school. Most students surveyed in NSW high schools believed that “language learning has no value for future studies and career perspectives; learning languages are too hard” (Morgan, Chodkiewicz ,Cruickshank and Tsung 2012).

The project will identify opportunities for resource sharing and development. It will identify strategies to increase teacher supply and will provide clear frameworks for assessing learning and programs. The study also takes into account the changing nature of languages. There are significant local impacts of changes in languages with developments in global media, technology, migration, travel and trade. The findings will add to our knowledge about which young people are learning and using which languages, in what contexts, and why – in other words, a mapping of the complexity of attitudes to language and their use. By focusing on specific sites, this study will take into account the experiences of young people studying and using languages across contexts. The study will thus provide macro-level and ‘holistic’ data on language use and learning that can inform the development of policy and programs and provide data that would facilitate co-ordination and evaluation of language programs, teacher education and language policy.

The study is in cooperation with The NSW Department of Education and Training and the Catholic Education Office, Sydney and encompasses three inter-related sections to advance the knowledge base of the discipline of second language learning in schools: first, through survey and interview of a number of young people (aged 8 to 18) about attitudes towards and motivations for their language learning practices. Secondly, data on the languages resources represented by teachers (both those who do and those who do not currently teach languages) will enable appropriate professional development which would then impact on teacher supply and the ‘teacher’ factor in student subject choice. The project will propose a model for developing a common languages assessment framework based on existing curricula and the proposed national curriculum for languages, drawing on frameworks such as the Common European Framework for Languages and Languages Passport. The research strategies and findings will have an immediate impact on how systems collect and use information and how programs are implemented and evaluated.

The project on one level, will involve collaboration across institutions, systems and states and link key providers in NSW. It addresses issues of a national assessment framework for reporting on school language proficiency levels. It will provide a perspective that is not limited to a specific education system, a specific language or a specific place of delivery. At another level, the research is innovative as it works from the target groups: young people who learn and use languages and those who do not. It works from the perceptions and experiences of teachers with languages skills (both language and non-language teachers) exploring professional development needs and pathways. It uses data to analyse program provisions and gaps and learner profiles.


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Morgan, L., Chodkiewicz, A., Cruickshank, K. & Tsung, L (2012). Mapping Language Study in NSW Schools and Case Studies of Two Languages and Two LGAs. University of Technology Sydney.
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