Young Australians – like myself – go abroad to teach English before they even understand it. Even with a university degree, the average young Aussie has a superficial understanding of the nuts and bolts of the language. We can write an essay on literature, but the study of language is treated as optional in most school syllabuses. Why is there a disconnect between the linguistic and cultural approach to language, and in particular, why don’t we study Australian English as a unique branch of the tree?
In Australia we don’t approach our linguistic culture with enough earnestness. To acknowledge that we actually speak a dialect of English (with distinct vocabulary, pronunciation, register, grammar and spelling) would go far to make the country more accountable and culturally harmonious moving forward. In addressing our multi-lingual/cultural history and future, Australian schools could teach an Australian English subject with an ethno-linguistic framework: this would be like how a subjugator admits they are not the benchmark in normalcy to address institutional discrimination, ie ‘Australian’ does not equal an Anglo-Celtic heritage. Nor is the country devoid of ‘culture’, as the self-deprecating adage goes. We do have culture here – the cringe comes when we don’t recognise the multiple angles from which we can study it: Indigenous; British; European; South-East-, East-, South-, and West Asian; African; American; linguistic characteristics; elocution; media; literature, etc. If we give each lens the same gravity, we could start to understand Australianness and understand that culture is ever-changing and amorphous – not monolithic.
This is my proposal: grammar and vocabulary could be reintroduced into the syllabus, as well as combining Australian history, Indigenous studies, multiethnic literature studies, and study of distinctions within the national dialect we call an ‘accent’. Addressing student motivation, we’ve seen that the internet has made it easier for Australians to reflect on ‘Australianness’ – polls to determine whether a fried potato snack should be called a ‘scallop’ or ‘cake’ or ‘fritter’ light up young people’s sense of identity and spark healthy debate. We delight in nicknaming everything. We are keen to explain the country to people we meet overseas but there’s not a comprehensive place in mainstream culture where we can cross-check our references.
My boyfriend sometimes points out my accent. We are an example of the ‘trap-bath split’ which is a feature of Australian accents. While he rhymes chance, dance and branch with romance – the short ‘a’ sound in ‘trap’ – I pronounce the vowel sound in those words with the sound a doctor requests you make when he has a tongue depressor in your mouth. My boyfriend’s from Sydney, I grew up in Adelaide. While the classification is still being researched, and it’s a tentative topic to claim with absolute certainty, the ‘Adelaide accent’ is one of the only ‘regional’ accents Australians will agree on, but it’s not an identifier like accents can be in the UK or US. No one has made a TV show set specifically in Adelaide with actors from around the country attempting to round out their As for authenticity. The accent doesn’t amuse audiences like the strange cadence of the Minnesotan accent on a show like Fargo.
For the most part, Australians tend to sound the same all over. In an 1997 study, expanding on the first break down of the Australian accent in 1965, researchers noted distinct sounds in three main categories: ‘Broad’, ‘General’, and ‘Cultivated’ – or, ‘Fair Dinkum Strayan Cobber’, ‘Heaps Good Soy Lah-tay’, and ‘Put a Threw on the Carch’. Other less-researched categories include the ethnolect of first and second generation migrants (or the ‘Fully Sick’ accent), the ethnolects of indigenous groups (or, ‘Deadly Fellas’), and the very specific and marginal idiolects like the ‘Heathrow Accent’ (the pronunciation of recently-returned-from-a-gap-year-in-the-UK Aussies, who now pronounce the T in ‘water’) and the ‘Hollywood Screen Test Accent’ of Australians working in the US, now pronouncing the R in words like ‘far’.
Half-jokingly, I tell the international students I teach that Australians speak three Englishes: Australian, British and American. The reality is we are exposed to so many more. There are regional British dialects and regional and subcultural dialects of the States. We’ve had no choice but to grow up on a diet of these cultures through television and cinema and music, and we can still draw on our own unique vernacular in response. Already, young Australians are creating a dialect that reflects the culture they grew up in, and it will continue on, and on. My grandmother said ‘cup of chino’ and we corrected her; kids of second generation Italians remind us Phở is pronounced ‘fur’ not ‘foh’. A glib example, perhaps, but a common belief among linguists is that children create the next iteration of a dialect, often disregarding the generation before them. In 2016, Australia was home to over 350 languages spoken at home or in the workplace. We are being influenced by language all the time. Australians are now even influencing the world (see: ‘selfie’, and most recently ‘crack open a cold one [with the boys]’). Utterances not of our fair dinkum forefathers.
The unifier for Australians – by birth or recent – isn’t so much a particular accent but the appropriation of Australian slang by the speaker. An ANU study in 2016 concluded that Australians trust and like people better if they use the colloquial Aussie vernacular. A broader accent helped, but using ‘arvo’, ‘Woolies’, or ‘have a crack’, for example, in any other accent – including non-Australian ones – didn’t negatively affect the perception of the speaker (other biases weren’t taken into account). Knowing the glossary of Australian expressions is held in higher esteem than hearing someone say ‘chance’ a different way to you. And what’s important to note here is that by ‘Australian expressions’, we’re talking about ‘How’s it going?’, ‘Maccas’, and ‘Devo’ and not so much ‘Cut the raw prawn’ anymore. Language changes, culture evolves. What millennials accept as Aussie lingo today would seem foreign to a bushranger. The dialect of the baby boomers is vastly different to that of Banjo Paterson which in turn would be unintelligible to the children of the Second Fleeters. The quirks of the colloquial have been fed by generations of migration, and yet there’s an ongoing perception that ‘Australiana’ is an Anglo-Celtic vestige, threatened by non-Anglo-Celtic arrivals (let alone even acknowledging Indigenous languages and cultures). Culture can’t be held or owned by a group of insiders.
To implement my proposal would require an overhaul of the current state syllabuses, however. The country would need education reform. Teachers would need a higher level of training to deliver such a specialised subject. How do you train teachers not to bring their biases to the classroom? How do you convince the population this is a necessary subject to learn? If we did convince them, though, designing a curriculum teaching Australian Language/Culture is relatively easy compared with devising a syllabus to teach other languages. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017) found that only ten percent of students in Australian high schools take a foreign language subject in their final year. There is significant evidence suggesting language acquisition is good for our brain performance and elasticity, yet if we accept that Australian children should learn a second language, the question then becomes: which ones? As English is inarguably the most strategic language with the largest number of people learning it in the world, which language benefits us? The most widely spoken, globally (Chinese, Spanish, Arabic) or locally (Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese)? The best for travel (Spanish, French, Arabic)? Emerging superpowers (Hindi, Portuguese, Chinese) or trade partners (Chinese, Japanese, Korean)? The answer to most of these would be Mandarin Chinese, but, as anyone who’s learnt Chinese will tell you, there aren’t enough hours in a week to learn it casually (according to the Foreign Service Institute, it takes roughly 4 times the hours to learn Chinese than any of the Romance languages, like Italian or Spanish). The other problem arises when a primary school offers a different language to the high school that a student ends up attending, which breaks the flow of learning – the student has to start from the beginning again. It will take forward-thinking leadership from state governments to choose the course of action for language subjects if they are to be an effective part of the student curriculum, but again, giving students the right quality and amount of tuition would require reformation.
Language drives Australia’s immigration, too. Newcomers to the country would also benefit from a population that understands the process of linguistic and cultural integration. How would Australian citizens fare on current English language test metrics? Peter Dutton and the Coalition’s proposed citizenship test changes emphasise language proficiency in new arrivals, yet could create an underclass of permanent residents who never acquire the standard of literacy even some Australians by birth would struggle with. Australia still sees its many languages as the exemplar of the country’s multiculturalism, but insists on a homogeneous high bar, reinforcing the British dominance of our culture – even when the reality and the future look quite different. Australia’s relationship to its cultural and linguistic multitudes has to change.
The lack of language comprehension in Australia should be cringeworthy: cultural cringe reacts to a perceived lack of culture, and yet Australia contains ‘heaps’. How we construct the conversation around the trade of culture will determine how the country grows. Ethically, the real transformation the country needs is rooted in the definition of Australian whiteness and not putting the onus on new arrivals to justify their differences. Only by acknowledging how the dominant cultural discourse makers came to be and examining white Australians as closely as we appraise others can Australia mature into a country that really knows itself. Australians who assume ‘sausage sizzle flat white stretched vowel’ Australia is the default to which everyone will eventually assimilate forget that culture finds its own course. People at the grassroots know how to comment on Australianness and they’re leaving the establishment of politicians and cultural gatekeepers running to catch up.