The loss of the only Vietnamese bilingual program

The decision to terminate the program was made in April this year in a closed meeting, when the new administration was barely one school-term into its role. It was also the start of COVID-19 lockdown, when parents and community members were struggling to adapt to the pandemic

If a second Italian bilingual school is to be established, why should it come at the expense of the only Vietnamese bilingual program, located at the heart of the Vietnamese community in Victoria?

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Bilingual school programs are about more than learning

Footscray Primary School in Victoria decided earlier this year to abolish its long-running Vietnamese bilingual program — where classes are taught in both English and Vietnamese. It will replace it with an Italian bilingual program. Vietnamese will be downgraded to two hours per week.

Footscray has been, and continues to be, an important Vietnamese community in Melbourne’s west. Unsurprisingly, there has been substantial community backlash about this decision. At the time of writing, an online petition initiated by one of the parents at the school has garnered around 17,000 signatures.

According to the latest census (2016) Vietnamese remains the most commonly spoken language in Footscray other than English — 11.4% of the population speak it (compared to 1.2% nationally). Vietnam is also listed the most common country of birth for residents who were born outside Australia (9.6%, compared to 0.9% nationally), or whose parents were (12.9% mothers, 12.4% fathers; compared to 1.4% nationally).

Italian does not figure in the top five responses in any of these categories.

The school says:

The bilingual program at Footscray Primary School is not a mother tongue maintenance program. It is a program that should deliver academic and content-based outcomes as well as language and culture to all students, regardless of which language they speak at home.

But placing Vietnamese on equal footing with any other bilingual program ignores its special significance to the local Vietnamese community, and beyond.

It also ignores the relentless battles people from minority immigrant and First Nations communities have had to fight to keep our cultures and languages alive in ways that are meaningful to us.

We live in, and through, language

German philosopher Martin Heidegger once described language as “the house of being”. What he meant is that language is more than a means of communication or transaction. Rather, we dwell in language. And since he conceives “being” as a kind of dwelling, it is in language that we are (or be).

That’s language — but what of languages?

French philosopher and philologist (who studies the history of languages) Barbara Cassin writes the maternal language is:

the one in which we are steeped … we are master of this language and yet it is the one that has a hold on us. It’s an extraordinary relationship. We are master because we can say what we want in it, but it has a hold on us because it determines our manner of thinking, our manner of living, our manner of being.

Cassin’s words might ring true for some, but not all in diasporic communities, as language retention among second and subsequent generations can be difficult to sustain.

Yet if one lives in a society where one’s maternal language is not the dominant one, the linguistic intimacy Cassin describes still only presents a partial picture. This is because our “manner of being” is also shaped by how we are received, supported and validated (or not) in our broader communities.


Hellen Ngo

Honorary Fellow, Deakin University


My experience with being a student at Footscray Primary School (1997 – 2003) has meant that I have had the unique opportunity to not only maintain my mother tongue, but witness my non-Vietnamese peers be exposed to a rich and beautiful language. Everyday....

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I truly feel for the local Footscray community where Vietnamese is an immediately relevant language, not only in many of the households but all through the retail precinct and community, allowing for a wonderful immersion program and the learning benefits...

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I support the Vietnamese bilingual program because I strongly believe that we need to fight for schools on Maribyrnong that are built on cultural diversity, communication and exchange. I want to see our local schools modelled on bringing families from dif...

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In Maribyrnong, Vietnamese continues to be the language most spoken at home other than English. Replacing Vietnamese with Italian, a European language, is not the way to go even if, as the school argues, an Italian program is easier to resource. It would....

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