Universities must help their communities preserve heritage languages

Language loss is a real danger among even second-generation migrants – here’s how to help, say Sender Dovchin and Rhonda Oliver


Curtin University
5 Jan 2022
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Even second-generation immigrants are in danger of losing their heritage language, but universities can help

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Compared with other Asian migrant populations in Western Australia (WA), the Mongolian community is relatively small, at less than 400 people. However, this group’s second-generation children are already in real danger of losing all traces of their Mongolian language, culture and heritage.

The situation is in stark contrast to what has occurred with larger migrant groups, such as the Chinese community, which has a population of more than 100,000 in WA. They have successfully preserved both their language and culture through force in numbers. Unfortunately, small migrant communities are much more susceptible to linguistic assimilation – losing one’s heritage language as one gradually shifts towards the dominant language of the host society.

Size is not everything, however, and being a small migrant community is not necessarily the key factor in language and culture loss. Despite their large populations here, Italian and Greek migrants are losing their language faster than any other migrant groups in Australia. This may have occurred because most post-war Italian migrants in Australia spoke only specific dialects as their first language, and in the context of the White Australia policy and the imperative to assimilate, they did not pass on their dialects to the second generation. This resulted in the grim situation of grandchildren being unable to talk to their grandparents.

A similarly tragic situation is looming over the second generation of Mongolian children in WA. Many Mongolians settling here have an Australian spouse, who they might have met in Mongolia while these partners were working for mining companies such as Rio Tinto. But now these families are living in Australia, the Mongolian language is often not used in such households.

Even when both parents are Mongolian, many encourage their children to speak “English only” both at school and at home – their goal, understandably, like that of the Italians and Greeks, is to assimilate their children into their new community.

Many parents have misconceptions about being bilingual and, like many in Australia, have a monolingual mindset. Thus, they believe that by using English as much as possible their children have the best chance of prospering in mainstream society. As a result, the importance of passing one’s mother language to the next generation is often overlooked, even though we know that language and culture are key to well-being and positive self-identity.

What is universities’ role in helping preserve languages? 

Given these grim realities, it’s vital for linguists based at universities in multicultural places such as Australia to focus on evidence-based research on heritage language maintenance. While a great deal of research has been completed in this area, much remains to be done. A further crucial role of universities is raising public and social awareness of heritage language rights as defined by the UN.

Heritage languages should be a valued element of modern Australian culture and society given their importance to one’s sense of belonging and identity. When a language dies, so does the link to the cultural, traditional and historical past of that particular heritage.

Universities also have a responsibility to provide administrators and decision-makers at the local and national government level with policy recommendations drawing on their evidence-based research on heritage language revitalisation. As academics, we must advocate and promote the importance of preserving heritage languages while working collaboratively with community language schools to establish a standard bilingual curriculum. Usefully, such collaboration may enable strong recommendations based on both theory and practice to help inform policymaking.

It is just as crucial for universities to help raise awareness across and within migrant community groups about the importance of maintaining and passing on their languages to future generations. As society becomes increasingly multicultural, it is necessary for citizens with a migrant background to learn how to function linguistically in a variety of contexts. Acquiring English need not interfere with cultivating proficiency in heritage languages and vice versa – the primary goal should be developing complementary, balanced excellence in both languages.

The most suitable bilingual educational approach is one that maintains the fine balance between linguistic assimilation into English but without the linguistic loss of heritage languages. Both languages should accommodate mutually inclusive approaches.

How can universities help preserve languages? 

Universities can support the preservation and revitalisation of heritage languages by helping community language schools deliver quality education. As experts, academics have the capacity to help them apply the most innovative research and pedagogical approaches. By sharing their research and theoretical understanding, universities are able to translate their knowledge into broader society.

Universities can also communicate directly with parents to share the importance of passing on their heritage language and culture, help them learn how to be more actively involved in their child’s academic success and foster an appreciation of their unique linguistic and cultural background.

Universities also have the opportunity to advocate for policies that promote language diversity as a standard societal practice and recognise heritage languages as educational and cultural resources. Practical examples could be a recommendation for a curriculum that would push all students beyond basic foreign language proficiency. Not every student would become necessarily fluent in said foreign languages, but the process of deeper study of a foreign language and culture would likely result in a greater appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Additionally, universities can have increased discussion on campus through bottom-up practices such as creating safe public spaces for migrant-background students to use their full linguistic proficiency. The encouragement of open community groups engaging in cultural and linguistic exchange on campus is also important – this could include elements of the linguistic landscape such as signs, instructions and other written materials showcasing foreign languages. Even small steps such as these can help a largely monolingual mindset become more exposed and open to the idea of a multilingual society.

Sender Dovchin is senior research fellow and discipline lead of the applied linguistics and languages group at the School of Education at Curtin University, Australia. Dr Dovchin is also a Discovery early career research fellow of the Australian Research Council, focusing on the issues of language and discrimination. 

Rhonda Oliver is an expert in second-language and second-dialect acquisition, particularly for child and adolescent learners, at the School of Education, Curtin University. She is an active researcher and has contributed widely to curriculum change and innovation in WA schools.


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