The state of languages education in Australia
Michael Clyne is a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and Founding Director of the Research Unit on Multiculturalism and Cross Cultural Communication (RUMACCC). He is the author of Australia’s Language Potential, University of New South Wales Press, 2005. Anne Pauwels is Dean of Arts & Humanities at the University of Western Australia. Roland Sussex is Professor of Applied Language Studies at the University of Queensland.
There has recently been much public discussion on the dangerously weakened status of mathematics and science in Australian education. But the issue of languages other than English has been put in the too-hard basket.
The MCEETYA National Plan on Languages Education (2005) opens with a great understatement: ‘Quality languages education is not yet part of the learning experience of all students, in all schools, in all parts of the country’.
In fact, half the children in compulsory education in Australia are not being taught a language other than English (LOTE) in a mainstream school. The majority of those taking a LOTE are in programs with inadequate time allocation, and taught by teachers who have not received sufficient training or are not sufficiently proficient in the language they are teaching. Language teacher status and morale are low. Most schools do not require students to take a second language throughout the compulsory years of education. Many schools make it impossible or inconvenient to take a LOTE in Years 9 and 10 through the constraints of the timetable.
Thirty years of reports and reviews have kept identifying the same problems.
Australia’s monolingualism and multiculturalism
Australia is blessed with resources in a wide range of languages but their utilization is undermined by a dominant monolingual mindset. Language skills acquired at home are often wasted because students are not being motivated to build on them or do not have opportunities to do so. Children learning languages are not given the opportunity to benefit from the community resources to develop their competence.
Languages offered in schools or in universities rarely take into account current language demography.
Persistent references to a ‘crowded curriculum’ as an obstacle are both dubious and misleading, since many countries of Europe and Asia do not consider their curriculum too crowded to include two foreign languages. This places Australia at odds with its peers in the OECD. From having had an acclaimed policy on languages in the 1980s, we are now near the bottom of the rankings. In Finland, where school students consistently perform better than Australians in international comparative assessments across the curriculum, all children take three languages throughout schooling, 44% a fourth language and 31% a fifth. In the Netherlands, 99% of Year 12 students are learning a second language, 41% a third and 21% a fourth.
There is Australian evidence that bilinguals approach the task of learning another language differently from monolinguals because they have a better understanding of how language works.
Advantages of bilingualisam and second language acquisition
International literature shows that bilingualism offers cognitive, social and cultural benefits.
Contrary to a dangerous myth, bilingualism and early second language acquisition, if imparted in an appropriate way, can enhance English literacy skills.
Language resources are of economic benefit to the nation. Yet when it comes to proficiency in foreign languages, a 2000 survey of CEOs in 27 countries put Australian CEOs last, behind the US, the UK and New Zealand.
A recent report to the British Council (English Next by David Graddol) based on a large number of databases, predicts that monolingual English speakers are about to lose the advantage that proficiency in the language gives them, because high English language skills are becoming a basic skill internationally.
Monolingual English native speakers will be disadvantaged by a lack of skills in other languages which their counterparts in other countries have. The report also predicts that, in 10-15 years’ time, use of other languages, especially Chinese and Spanish, will rival use of English.
Diversity in programs
Because Australia has English as its national language, it does not need to teach any particular language as its first foreign language and can opt for a wider range of languages, Asian, European and other, in keeping with needs and resources. However, recent increases in the number of students taking certain Asian languages have been at the expense of other languages. Above all, Australia cannot afford monolingualism.
1. A language other than English should be compulsory for all students in compulsory years of education. (Some States and Territories may require a staged introduction of the implementation of this recommendation.)
2. Incentives (including scholarships and overseas study grants) should be provided for those wishing to train as LOTE teachers.
3. Political leaders should encourage bi- and multilingualism (BOTH English acquisition and the acquisition or the maintenance and development of at least one other language).
4. All States and Territories should become part of the Collaborative Curriculum and Assessment Framework for Languages.
5. All States and Territories should establish a School of Languages open to students wishing to take a language not offered in their school.
6. Incentives for university entry, such as the Victorian bonus system, should be offered for those continuing a LOTE to Year 12.
7. Universities need to offer a larger range of languages, taking into account language demography, internationalisation needs and targets and the needs of senior secondary students.
8. More carefully targeted government funding is needed for language programs in universities, as is the case in the United States.
9. Changes in regulations on collaboration across the sector should be effected to facilitate inter-university collaboration to support disciplines with small enrolments.
10. Funding should be assured of overseas exchanges which include study experience in a language other than English.
There might also be need to consider establishing frameworks (eg a national advisory committee) for the implementation of changes.
Australia cannot afford the cost of monolingualism.
Key Learning AreasLanguages
Subject HeadingsEducational planning
Languages other than English (LOTE)
Language and languages