Sunday, December 26, 2010

WA needs a holistic approach to languages!

 The ACT is currently seeking comments to a draft ACT languages policy discussion paper: Submissions close on 28 February 2011 which is one week after International Mother Language Day 2011!

I had a quick look at the document and found great information:
The ACT Languages Policy discussion paper is founded on four overarching principles:
Celebrating more than one language!
  1. Language is an element of human rights
  2. Language is closely linked with personal and cultural identity
  3. Language is an essential tool in the social organisation of a community
  4. Language is the basis of cognitive and educational development

The draft document refers to the following international and national agreements as a framework:
  • National Policy on Languages (NPL), 1987
Features: National bilingualism, language as a right
Focus:competence in English, maintenance and development of languages other than English, provision of language services,opportunities for learning second languages
Features: Language as a resource, cultural diversity
Focus: English for all, support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages, second language for all, language services for all
Reviewed in 1997 by Ojars Rugins
Features: Focus on economic needs — trade and tourism
Focus: Asian languages taught: Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian 
This policy has already been evaluated,
Features: Teaching of English language from early age with external testing to national standards
Focus: standardised testing of English language skills reported.
Features: Language related issues addressed 
Focus: individuals’ names, religion, community life and non-government organisations
economic life, administrative authorities and public services, independent national institutions,
judicial authorities, deprivation of liberties

Plus these other relevant Australian documents
Well done officials and the many people passionate for language learning in the ACT who contributed to the draft policy document!!!

I think it is time for a holistic approach to languages in Western Australia. We have a WA Charter of Multiculturalism that does not mention language learning but just acknowledges differences in languages spoken with a major emphasis on community harmony but without commitment to support language learning and language maintenance. More information on language services for migrants.

The Western Australian Language Services Policy 2008 is another policy that does not mention language learning but is about accessibility to WA Government services for non-English speakers through interpreters and translators. Check the 2009-2010 report card. The WA Health Department has an additional health languages services policy but I am not sure whether that has already been finalised. Here is a draft version.

I think it is time to open the eyes of WA officials and politicians regarding the benefits of language learning! What about a petition to the WA parliament?

What do you think?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What about the mother tongue?

Raising your children in more than one language is a continuous process. This learning journey for the whole family needs strategies, skills and support. When parents help each other and share experiences and resources, success is pretty much guaranteed. Professional assistance and support adds to the mix.

Migrants come in all sizes and shapes but many of them abandon the mother language upon arrival. Why do many migrants have monolingual children? Why is having more than one language not recognised as a desirable skill? Is there any value in the maintenance of the mother tongue and language learning in general?

All parents want their children to achieve well, not only academically . The benefits of the raising children in the family language have been  researched extensively and are proven regarding cognitive skills, enhanced analytical thinking, better communication skills and cultural awareness. The benefits of having more than one language in old age are also well documented.
I migrated to Australia in 1995 from Germany. In 2000 I already had two children, Theresa aged 4 and Miles aged 2. I always spoke German with my children and only slowly learnt the vocabulary that I had never come across in my academic English tuition at high school and law school, such as 'skivvy' and 'bib'. Still I was very concerned when soon after entering childcare and kindergarten my children responded to my German words in English only. Looking for support I phoned every parent support agency but there was not much useful feedback. Information was scarce and not at all satisfying. Being bilingual was considered as my private decision. The benefits for the whole society were not at all recognised.

Nothing much has changed in the past ten years. Australia’s monolingual mindset is unchallenged and language learning is still way down the agenda. However some positive signs have appeared in the past years. Since June 2007 Australia’s major universities (the Group of 8) are giving a credit of 10% towards the TEE entrance score to all applicants who chose a language as TEE subject. The Commonwealth government is providing significant money into school tuition of Asian languages, encompassing Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese.

But where is the support for the parents? Who assists parents who at the birth of a child have to make the decision what language they speak to the child? What information is provided to newly arrived migrants in the settlement package about family language maintenance? What is the information that helps people to decide whether they continue using the family language at home and in the community? 

Language loss in my village
It is not a new issue and the issue is not an Australian issue only. I grew up in a small village in rural Lower Saxony in the North of Germany near Hanover the former capital of Prussia. As a child I witnessed how using the local village dialect was discouraged by a post war parent generation who wanted their children to succeed academically. When my grandmother was young everybody spoke 'plattdeutsch', the local dialect of the area. She was born in 1900 and people identified which village a person came from by the way they pronounced the local dialect. The use of the dialect was quite flexible and it even incorporated some French words, such as ‘trottoir’ or ‘chaiselongue’ that were left behind from Napoleon’s occupation at the start of the 19th century. But neither my grand-parents nor my parents addressed us children in the local dialect. With us they only spoke 'hochdeutsch', the written language. Nevertheless, we learnt to understand it by listening to their conversations, especially when they tried to keep things secret from our ears. As a child I could understand it well but I never spoke it much, always responded in the proper words as used in the written language.

Language learning in German schools
Learning other languages was part of my daily school life, having learnt English from Year 5, French from Year 7 and even some Latin from Year 9. When migrating to Australia I was surprised that not everybody could see the opportunities, strengths and richness for the individual and the society through a diversity of maintained languages. The monolingual mindset became obvious to me quite early. The passion for language learning was not a passion mainstream Australians would easily embrace, such as the passion for sport. But migrating in the mid 90ies I experienced a lot more admiration for the knowing of another language than some migrants who arrived in the 60ies or 70ies.

Benefits of speaking and learning more than one language can be identified at a personal level, for the family and the society as a whole.

1.      Develop language potential to the fullest, as all children can attain high level of proficiency of another language in addition to English
2.      Children are able to understand themselves and their family better, feeling at home in other cultures
3.      Range of recent studies give evidence having more than one language is good for your brain
  • Increased cognitive thinking skills
  • Bilinguals are superior on divergent thinking
  • There is a link between metalinguistics awareness and reading readiness in children
  • Positive impact on brain development for children with two languages by age of five
  • Increases the amount of dense material in the brain with possible benefits for functionality of the brain at old age
4.      Experience of learning more than one language gives us wider perspective on ourselves, on our place in the world, on those who are different to us.
5.      Ability to communicate with other languages and culture
6.      Benefit to national economy, enhancing Australian competitiveness – attracting global companies to Australia.

Unfortunately these benefits are not widely recognised and understood and professionals still advise people to stop speaking the mother tongue with the aim of not confusing the children with two languages.

We need to do better and embrace our language resources as we embrace our mining resources!

My favourite video about bilingualism!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

“German” Christmas down under

My mother grew up in former Silesia now a part of Poland. Becoming a refugee as a 12 year old during WWII she had to flee her home and the family was not able to rescue any of the precious things you get out from the far corners of your cupboards to put up and enjoy looking at during the Christmas season. I remember her stories about Christmas. She told me that as Catholics living on a remote farm the family went to midnight mess on a sleigh. And every year they fed the cows and horses in the barn a piece of bread on Christmas eve to say thank you to the animals' for their work over the past year.

When I was a small child the freshly cut pine tree, decorated with “lametta” - thin strips of aluminium foil - and real candles, was hidden from us as a surprise until after (Lutheran) church on Christmas eve. After a quick dinner with suaerkraut, saussages and "Bratkartoffeln" a bell rang. Only then we were allowed to enter the living room, but we had to sing Christmas songs or say a poem before we could open the presents. In some years Santa Claus was there in person, the “Weihnachtsmann” with his feared stick, “die Rute” that would give a few cautious wacks to naughty children - and sometimes to my dad as well- before handing out the presents from his big sack. In Germany Christmas has been a family affair all along just like in Australia, but we had clear rituals around food, visits, presents, music, the church and sometimes snow. i remember how quiet the country became covered in a blanket of snow. I can recall the crisp sound of our steps in the snow on the way to church.

As I celebrated my first Christmas in Australia I have only been in the country for less than a year. There was no tree and there were no precious things. I arrived carrying a backpack only and my immigration papers were still pending. Our celebration, in Darwin at the time, featured none of the treasured items that were thought to be indispensable only a year earlier. But it was warm and the beach was close where we spent a lot of our Christmas time. I also remember how I enjoyed watching the severe lightning in the build-up from the rooftop of the appartment house we were housesitting then.

Only the first year after our daughter was born we still celebrated Christmas eve as the main event. We were working out bush near Mount Magnet as contractors in mineral exploration then and I brought along some tinsel tp decorate the camp. My husband also cut an Australian Christmas tree in full orange flowers for the occasion. When he brought the tree into our camp site it gave me a severe allergy attack and had to be returned to the bush only hours later.

Now we are spreading the celebrations across the two important days. I again cook the traditional Christmas Eve meal of my childhood: fried sausages, fried potatoes and sauerkraut. The celebrations are kicked off with the children participating in the traditional Christmas play at our Lutheran church in Perth, presented in German by local children of German speaking families. Before it gets dark we put out some homemade reindeer food to make the reindeers stay a bit longer at our house. Then we have a feast with our closest Australian family members, talking about traditions and sharing stories about Christmas. We usually get dressed up and also open some presents.

The plastic Christmas tree with electric candles at that time already will have spent more than two weeks in our living room. The children help with decorating, but there still are no ‘lametta’ or other German treasures hanging off the tree. We usually start baking Christmnas cookies at the end of November, as many such as ginger bread varieties need some time to soften before they can be eaten with joy. Last year we were baking in 35 degrees, worked fine with the fan on in the kitchen. Traditions are strong motivators.

On Christmas Day we unpack the rest of the presents that appear during the night brought by Santa coming who comes through our chimney. We leave the food out for Santa as usual. We also have Christmas stockings, but they are not so important. The lounge room usually ends up being in a big mess after we unpacked all remaining presents early in the morning on Christmas Day over a cup of tea.

Then we are off to the beach, meeting with friends for morning tea, some games, stories and sharing special Christmas food, such as our traditional German herring salad. And we jump into the clear ocean for a Christmas swim. Dress is casual on the day before we go home for a Christmas Dinner as a small family unit again, jazzed up by some close friends, sharing cold ham, some chicken, more salad and may be sea food, the meal to be finished up with traditional English Christmas pudding if there is room in our tummies.  Left overs are kept for Boxing Day  that sees us going to the beach and meeting friends and distant family members once more for a picnic at a nice spot in the shade.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas the children and me love reading German and English Christmas stories to get the feeling for Christmas. For many years our favourite story was about Santa going surfing after having completed his work.

There are big differences between German and Australian Christmas celebrations, such as the weather here that permits a strong focus on outdoor activities. Both festivities are family affairs and we feel we have married both cultures to a perfect match, just right for us.  We are very lucky and only rarely I feel like my mother who had to leave all her precious Christmas things behind when she was a girl without a home, being a refugee.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tonia's plans for Christmas

Irma has asked me to share with you my plans for this Christmas. This year, I am hosting Christmas lunch for my parents, my aunt and uncle who are visiting from the Eastern States, my two sisters, their husbands, my 1 year old niece and my three nephews aged 6, 5 and 3.   Taking a leaf out of Irma's big book of fun, I have come up with a few ideas to keep my boisterous nephews entertained:
The main meal
My nephews aren't yet old enough to get excited about any food that isn't junk food, and they are also at a stage where they won't willingly eat vegetables at all. But since it's Christmas, they won't have to. For the main meal I'm giving them Santa pizzas. This is something I discovered in a library book. A Santa pizza is a mini pizza base, spread with tomato paste, with a (pitted) half olive for eyes and nose, and a strip of capsicum for a mouth. Using shredded cheese, the kids can each add Santa's hair and beard to their pizza before I cook it.
I don't buy Christmas decorations, I make them. The children can help and/or take them home afterwards if they want to. And if they don't want them, these decorations are compostable. This year I've cut up some white crepe paper that I had lying around into strips, using scissors with a zig zag edge. They will become streamers, or maybe paper chains. I also bought some wrapping paper that is red with white spots. Cut into triangles and hung on white string, it will become bunting. From my own childhood I remember we children always used to finish our meal long before the adults did. So to keep the boys entertained between courses, they're getting a paper tablecloth and a set of crayons so they can draw on it. 
Probably the most important thing from the boys' point of view. Irma's and my work colleague Nina has just moved house and was happy to give me 3 used cardboard boxes, tea chest sized. Like many households, my shed contains a large collection of left over paint.   I used these to prime the sides, then on 2 sides of each box I painted a big green Christmas tree. 
For Christmas tree decorations I have attached plastic-wrapped mini candy cans to one of the trees on each box, and I will be attaching foil-wrapped chocolate coins to the other. 
On the third side of one of the boxes, I have drawn the outline of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer using a picture I found on the internet.

On the fourth side of all of the boxes, I have painted a well-spaced out city scape against a dark blue night sky. The buildings are connected by bridges and tunnels. I drew the city scape so that if you stand the boxes next to each other, there is a continuous picture across all of the boxes. Why? I'll tell you shortly...

Those big boxes take a bit of filling up! I have put in layers of presents, separated by scrunched up newspaper and blown up white balloons. The first layer of presents is joke presents – a potato, an old boot, that sort of thing. Admittedly, this might not amuse the boys very much, but it sure will amuse their aunty and uncle. From there the children will delve down to find stickers, sticker books, lollies etc. Their real presents are right at the bottom, and in keeping with my plan to try to keep the boys entertained, their presents this year are games we can all play together eg Hungry Hippo and Twister.
Apart from those shop-bought games, with the help of the internet I've come up with a few more. You've probably already guessed what the Rudolph picture is for – a game of pin the nose on Rudolph. Using red card backed with double sided tape I've cut out a nose for every guest, marked with the guest's name, so we can all have a go, and no cheating!   
The city scape I painted on the boxes will be used for a throwing game. I have sewn a small red felt bean bag with a green felt Rudolph (with a red pompom for a nose) on it. To play this game, teams take turns throwing the bean bag at the city scape. Teams win points if Rudolph “flies” through the painted night sky, through a tunnel or over a bridge. They lose points if Rudolph goes splat! into a building.
The white balloons I put in the boxes also have another use. They're for snowball soccer. Without using their hands, teams will have to get as many “snowballs” into a box as possible within one minute. After that if no-one objects we can play snowball squish, where two teams race to pop as many balloons as they can, one at a time.
Another game is Who's Santa? One person, Rudolph, is sent out of the room. I have a silly pair of felt antlers for Rudolph to wear. Everyone else sits in a circle. One person is designated Santa. When Rudolph comes back, Santa's job is to wink at different people in the circle when he or she thinks Rudolph isn't looking. If you get winked at by Santa, you have to say in a loud voice “Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!” Rudolph's job is to try to work out who Santa is. 
I hope my family has a lot of fun this Christmas. But even if things don't go as planned (hmm, do they ever?) I've had a lot of fun planning it.
Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
Tonia Brajcich (of Croatian background), November 2010

Our cat speaks German!

Our cat speaks German
I was never keen on getting a pet. I was worried about the additional work. After growing up on a farm in Germany where animals had their place and were never allowed into the house I simply could not imagine living closely with an animal.
About 18 months ago a yoga friend told me about this cat that was picked up as a stray with a litter. The cat, Marnie, had been de-sexed, the kittens were with a vet and Marnie needed a home. At the time the cat was housed in a garage after being rejected by her friendly saviour’s own two cats. Two weeks later the cat was still up for adoption and I decided to give the cat a home.
I have not looked back since.  From the first minute when we met Marnie we started speaking only German to her and she took to it like a duck to the water. My children were 11 and 12 at the time. During their life German has been the preferred language of conversation between us three. They have always been talking to each other in English though, which is not surprising as they were born in Australia and they have always lived in Australia, apart from three brief holidays to Europe. But with me it was German only, our language of choice and of habit. I have used the ”One person one language approach” since birth. Therefore it was only natural that our new fourth ‘family member’ would share our language. My children found it quite normal to only address the cat in German.
The caring, feeding and looking after our cat provided another much needed focus for the German language in our family. The cat is well mannered, friendly and happy. She lives outside during the day and inside at night time. When calling her to come inside we use the words “lecker, lecker, lecker” which means yummy and works very well with her. Marnie surely understands every word we say.
It did not take long until the children gave the cat a proper German name too: “Marnie Schnurlibur Glitzerfell Klingelkatze”. I leave it up to you to find the exact translation but it means something like a cat that purrs, has a shiny fur and carries a bell. Just the right name for our German speaking new family member!
Recently she started purring in German too, greeting us with a sound just like “Morrrr(gen)” in the morning.  It’s great fun to live with a German speaking cat.

Bilingual Families Perth

In 2011 it will be 10 years that we started Bilingual Families Perth, a network of families with more than one language. The journey is not finished but continuing, although the children are growing up and becoming adults. This blog will share some stories from the journey and recall events that we experienced along the track. I would like to invite other bilingual people who live in Australia, especially people who live in Perth, to use this blog to post their stories and questions and whatever is on their mind that relates to language learning in more than one language .

I was inspired to start writing a blog about bilingualism in Australia because I am having so much fun writing my gardening blog and because with awa I witnessed the blogging carnival that my bilingual friends all over the world are holding from time to time. I am part of this world of more than one language and more than one culture. it is part of my making and I love it.

This picture was taken at a Harmony Week event at the Loftus Community Centre following a drumming circle. We asked a local baker to make us an Easter bread with a smiley face and he baked us the words HARMONY out of bread dough to hold and eat. Yummy.