It is no new thing to call for more people in Australia to learn languages. This time, the call has a narrow target: the politicians who manage our country. As much as we might not like to admit it, we, as a country, think of our politicians as a certain sort of role model – though perhaps only in some domains. When they endorse an idea, whether good or bad, other people tend to start liking that idea. When they shun an idea, others follow suit.
The Language and Cultures Network of Australian Universities (LCNAU) has called for the politicians to set an example and learn Asian languages. If politicians are seen publicly using Asian languages, they say, it will encourage others to put in the effort to learn them also. The opposite is also true: when politicians do not use other languages in public, it suggests that it is not important to learn and use other languages.
Kevin Rudd provided the example, and it was a source of reactions from fascination to ridicule to apathy. Since he took a back seat role, few, if any public figures in Australia have used other languages publicly.
The call from LCNAU is specific to Asian languages, but in reality, any language use by public figures (be they politicians, media, or just plain celebrities) is good for the cause of demystifying monolingualism. What is important is that Australians learn that speaking, reading, hearing and writing other languages is not magical, nor is it impossible. Learning a language well can be difficult, but it is worth the effort.
Australia has a wealth of linguistic potential in its immigrant communities and their descendants, indigenous communities, and those who have studied languages in school and university, but their potential is hidden away. People speak all sorts of languages in their homes and in their acquaintance, but it rarely becomes public language. Even when employed to use their language skills, they work in the background. With the example of public figures themselves using language skills in public, others, young and old, have a better reason to put in the effort to learn a second language, and less reason to be suspicious or in awe of those who have done so.