the editor yesterday was one about "multi-culturalism" which stated "Australians must have the worst track record in the world for speaking another language".
That may be true. I do not know. We do have a lot of migrants who speak another language. By no means all of them read and write it. They would not be considered literate and I suspect the writer of the letter was actually concerned with literacy.
I know however that Australians are generally viewed as "mono-lingual". I also know that the retention rate for languages other than English is considered to be low. Further there has been a policy which emphasises Asian rather than European languages in schools.
From my reading, discussion with those who work in the area, and my observations I would say that languages are not generally well taught in Australian schools, nor are they taken seriously. You cannot teach young children Japanese by devoting an hour a week to it. If you were serious about it then it would require an hour a day. There would be children's television in Japanese without subtitles. Japanese would be heard frequently in the community.
If you doubt this then look at the way the Scandinavians teach English. English teaching starts with Playschool from the BBC. There is at least a daily lesson in it. It is compulsory for all students right across the country, even those requiring "special educational assistance". English is often heard. People grow up believing there is some point in learning it and at least one other language as well.
It is not like that in Australia. I occasionally hear Japanese spoken - by groups of tourists being led around by a Japanese speaking guide. When I did greet a Japanese in their own language he did not even bother to respond. He looked shocked that I, a female, had dared to speak to him.
Mind you I only know a half a dozen words of Japanese but I was trying to be polite.
I would probably have got the same reaction if I had tried to use a Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese greeting. Apparently you do not do it. On the other hand if I had used French, Spanish, Italian or Greek I would almost certainly at least have been given what I consider to be a culturally polite response. Quite possibly it would have been even more than that.
It is politics not preferences that has led to the emphasis on Asian languages in Australian schools. One of the world's major languages, Spanish, is rarely taught in school here. A major African language, Swahili, is not taught either. We do not teach the languages of the Indian sub-continent and it is only in the last few years that a version of Arabic has been taught - and that mostly at Islamic schools. We cannot teach everything but it seems the time available for language teaching is often wasted because of the political demands being made..
I am also wondering whether the cultural gap between some languages is one of the things that discourages Australians from being bilingual and multilingual. We are making assumptions about how others feel about us trying to speak their language. They may not necessarily regard it as a compliment. They may prefer to use English. Perhaps we should be asking them.