ESL in Australia – A chequered history

Rhonda Oliver, Judith Rochecouste, Bich Nguyen


A historical perspective of English as a second or additional language (ESL/EAL) in Australia reveals the field as in a constant state of flux, in spite of Australia’s status as a nation of immigrants. This paper provides a contemporary review of the various phases of English language teaching in Australia for both adults and school-aged learners. It does so in the context of earlier pro-British monolingual attitudes, external global forces, ongoing changes in education policy, more recent national assessment regimes and the various global and local developments in the teaching of second languages.

Historically the impetus for teaching English as a Second Language came with large-scale post-World War II arrivals from Europe. Language support for child migrants was only introduced some time later and has continued, although decreasing in availability in recent years. From the 1970s, more focussed programs were instigated with the arrival of refugees from war-torn countries. In this paper we describe the constant changes experienced by the providers and the recipients of English language instruction in Australia.

Theoretically, the development of ESL instruction in Australia began with an essentially post-colonial perspective whereby the process of assimilation focussed on normalising the difference and/or deficit of non-English speakers and attaining the language skills of normative white middle-class native speakers (Pavlenko, 2003). Despite various investments in multiculturalism, the non-native English speaker in Australia remains the ‘other’, subject to sometimes intermittent and ad hoc funded assistance. 


ESL history; EAL/D; child migrant education; AMEP

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