Languages: Where next?
Language education in Australia seems never far from an argument. Some of these are about why Australians are such poor language learners, how much it matters and what can or should be done about it. Who should study what languages, how and how much? Recent developments - inquiries by the Commonwealth and in Victoria, revised curriculums in several states - have not resolved these issues. Perhaps it is time to ask the fundamental question: should we persevere with the concept of LOTE (Languages other than English) as a key learning area that demands every student's participation over most of the compulsory years of schooling?
Some pressing issues are uncertainty about the purpose and benefits of language study, reluctance on the part of principals and systems to commit large scale resources, perceptions of low achievement levels and student disengagement.
A cursory glance at the various state and territory curriculum documents for the LOTE learning area reveals considerable confusion about why students ought to learn languages. Some of the key suspects are: cultural enrichment; the development of cultural openness and tolerance; practical communicative skill; vocational relevance; private or public economic benefit; and enhanced progress in English literacy and communication.
It might be said that all these benefits are real and it doesn't matter how they are ranked, and therefore that language learning is clearly desirable and ought to be mandatory and universal. However, it is highly debatable whether the kind of LOTE programs generally found in Australian schools produce all of these goods. Moreover, how one ranks these purposes has enormous implications for the way programs are structured, how they are connected to other parts of the curriculum, the extent of resourcing, and perhaps most fundamentally, the choice of languages to be learned and of pedagogical approaches. At present Australian students learn languages through a patchwork of methodologies, producing predictably patchy outcomes.
It seems pure common sense that language learning would broaden students' horizons, encouraging them to be interested in and accepting of other cultures. However, this surely depends on the students having a positive language learning experience. Anecdotal evidence that many students find LOTE classes tedious, if not torturous, is backed up by the more solid evidence that very few choose to proceed with language study once they pass the compulsory phase. It is not clear that language study inherently produces acceptance of cultural diversity or positive attitudes towards the specific 'target culture'.
To take an obvious example - there are now over a million and a half Australians who have at some time studied Indonesian. How much has this produced demonstrable change in Australians' prevailing negative attitudes towards Indonesia and its people?
Another issue is the inherent narrowness of a structured language program as a pathway to cultural knowledge - if students learn about just one specific culture, even assuming their experience to be positive and the cultural offering presented to be a rich one, it may or may not promote a generic openness or curiosity about cultural difference.
In relation to practical communication, it is unclear how many Australian students ever apply language skills gained at school. But it is fairly obvious that the capacity to do so depends on reasonably high proficiency levels. Only a small number of Australian students who complete only the compulsory stages of LOTE programs will find themselves able to produce more than the most rudimentary communication in another language.
Resource issues are also not inconsiderable. LOTE teaching positions are notoriously difficult to fill, especially for rural schools and smaller schools which must often rely on itinerant part-timers. Many are the schools that have had to switch languages in mid-program due to persistent staff shortages. Teacher supply is strong for some languages but very weak for others. A sizeable proportion of funding for Asian languages has been devoted to in-service language courses for teachers, without really overcoming the problem. Declining enrolments for university language courses, in particular Asian languages, suggest worrying trends for teacher supply in the future.
It seems to me that two things need to be sorted out before we can move our LOTE programs to a satisfactory basis.
Before anything else, we need first to clarify exactly why we want students to learn languages - not just recite the litany of supposed blessings that a language program will confer, but spell out the specific purpose we have in mind.
Second, we need to step back and consider how the total curriculum in our schools prepares all young people for global citizenship. For some students, learning a second language will prove a splendid tool for achieving this broader aim. But for others, certainly the majority, it is at best a very blunt instrument and at worst a poor excuse. No matter how much the linguistic core is enriched by cultural studies, LOTE programs on their own cannot get us very far in equipping young people to face the complexities of the globalised world.
Perhaps the time has come to admit no one should be denied the taste of language learning, but that in many secondary schools compulsion is counter-productive. At the same time, perhaps we need a systematic rethink of how we engage students with the global currents that are shaping their future.
Key Learning AreasLanguages
Subject HeadingsCurriculum planning
Languages other than English (LOTE)