While social work is a language centred activity, very little space has been devoted to language in the social work literature and minimal attention has been paid to the dynamic plurilingual environment in which social work takes place. In much of the literature, language has been narrowly conceptualised from a monolingual Anglophone perspective and often only in terms of its communicative role. In English-dominant countries, an inability to communicate fluently in the majority language is commonly constructed as a deficit or disadvantage, and in this context linguistic diversity is primarily viewed from a problem perspective in social work. However, language serves a broad range of social, political and economic functions in addition to its communicative role. Linguistic diversity can also be conceptualised as a personal and social resource rather than just a problem in need of remedy.
The broad purpose of this thesis is to open up new possibilities for understanding language practices in social work in an internationalised era of praxis. More specifically, it is concerned with expanding conceptual understandings of what language does, or its functions, as well as exploring some strategic new ways, or frameworks, for thinking about language, difference and diversity in social work. This exploratory inquiry locates social work in a global, post-colonial era where English retains a pivotal role on the world stage and bilingual identity is more the norm rather than the exception. In this broader context, the thesis is also concerned with how social work is currently placed to engage with a global linguistic landscape that has in part been shaped by colonial relations and politico-economic forces.
In the first part of this study, a cross-disciplinary approach to language is used to initially open up the conceptual landscape for looking at language and difference in social work. This broader conceptual framework is then used to scaffold the second part of the study, which explores how bilingual practitioners' understandings of language may assist in "rethinking' language and difference in social work. Eighteen bilingual social workers who were either practising or doing post-graduate study in social work were interviewed in relation to how their understandings of language intersect with their social work praxis. Their views were also sought on the place of English in social work education and practice in the broader international context. The interviews were analysed thematically. In order to demonstrate some of the different ways that language identity interacts with social work praxis, three of the practitioners' accounts were then purposively selected and analysed as case studies.
This study identifies a prominent "monolingual consciousness' in Australian social work that is evident within the broader societal context, where a 'taken-for-granted' attitude towards English tends to minimise the significance of linguistic diversity. The limitations of conceptualising language primarily as a neutral code of communication in social work are identified in terms of how this model negates the politics of language choice and masks the ways that language-in-use constructs meaning. The findings also reveal the ways in which language acts as a highly visible marker of social identity that in turn shapes interactions and their attendant power relations.
The implications of the inquiry are framed in terms of the importance of locating language practices in both historical and spatial contexts as well as examining the contemporary social and politico-economic milieus in which social relations are embedded. Rather than privileging one particular lens to look at language in social work, the study concludes that a flexible framework that allows for movement between different linguistic orientations and traditions is necessary given the context-dependent nature of language use. A case is made for social workers to cultivate a critical reflexivity around the use of 'languaged' self in praxis, and the study ends with some recommendations for further research that build on the conceptual possibilities offered in this inquiry.