Speaking the same language
At the heart of a cross-faculty research project under way at Newcastle is the view to improving the quality of life of newcomers to Australia.
Team leader of the Language and Inclusion Research Network Dr Christo Moskovsky says understanding the importance of language competence in relation to social integration is the essence of the project.
Christo makes the point that while language is traditionally described as a communication system, there is a lot more to it than that. We do use language to interact socially, but also to express emotion, to acquire and convey complex knowledge and ideas, to perform a wide range of job-related operations, and the list can go on. Language is irrevocably linked to everything we do.
"Language is undeniably the most powerful and comprehensive cognitive tool that humans have at their disposal," Christo says. "Formal education would be completely unthinkable outside of language. There is absolutely no doubt that language is indispensable to practically all aspects of normal daily functioning."
Christo says that it is somewhat surprising, then, that "most people tend to take language for granted and generally fail to appreciate the immensely important roles that it plays in our lives".
"This is probably to a large extent due to the fact that language knowledge and use are typically unconscious and effortless. The critical importance of language becomes much clearer in situations in which a person is deprived, to one degree or another, of language ability.
"We find this situation in cases of language impairment such as aphasia. Those unfortunate enough to have suffered a language impairment, for example as a result of a stroke, know that very few experiences are as excruciating as being in possession of rich conceptual meaning, but lacking the lexical and/or grammatical structures necessary to encode this meaning into a linguistic message."
Christo says low-level second language competence is strikingly akin to a language impairment, imposing very similar disadvantages on less proficient second language speakers.
"In light of this, let's think of what happens when someone ends up living in a community with a different language. It stands to reason that unless such a person possesses, or manages to attain, a very high level of competence in the host community's language, their capacity for normal functioning would be severely compromised.
"In view of the fact that the vast majority of immigrants to this country come from non-English speaking backgrounds, this is a very important question."
And it is the reason behind the research.
"Our project is designed to consider the role that competence in English plays in relation to immigrants' capacity for social, cultural and professional integration into the Australian community.
"We intend to conduct a large-scale longitudinal study, and hope our research will add to the volume of knowledge in this field," Christo says.
The research team is made up of Christo, Dr Jean Harkins, Dr Alan Libert and Dr Silvia Ratcheva from Linguistics, Dr S. A. Hamed Hosseini from Social Science, and Dr Stefania Paolini and Dr Mark Rubin from Psychology.
Christo – who came to Newcastle as a PhD student in linguistics from Bulgaria 20 years ago - has notable credentials in investigating the cognitive and psychological aspects of learning second languages.
Hamed has been researching the sociology of ethnic relations, addressing intercultural integration and socioeconomic inclusion of marginalised ethnic minorities.
Linguistic minorities have formed a large part of Alan's research, and Stefania's work concerns the psychology of social exclusion.
Silvia, who knew Christo when they were both students at Sofia University, specialises in the issues surrounding second language acquisition, and Mark has in recent times published work exploring the social integration of Australian immigrants.Jean teaches and publishes in intercultural communication.