Language Barrier

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 15 17:38:24 UTC 2005

>>From the Melbourne, Australia Age

The language barrier
March 14, 2005

Victoria is a leader in the teaching of foreign languages, so why are so
many secondary students spurning them? Janet de Silva reports. It's a
Tuesday morning at Gardenvale Primary School in Brighton East and a lively
recitation of "ichi, ni, san, shi go" sounds from Takako Kiyose's
classroom. Inside, a group of grade 2 students are counting to 10 in
Japanese while their teacher, Ms Kiyose, organises their next task - to
match common Japanese words and phrases with corresponding pictures.

Seven-year-old Jake says Japanese is his favourite subject, particularly
as he can practise the language at home with his brother, Elliot, a grade
6 student at Gardenvale. "We like to speak in private so that our mother
can't understand us," says Jake who, like most of his classmates, is
clearly chuffed at having mastered a few simple foreign phrases. By the
end of the week, all of Gardenvale's 588 students will have attended one
of Ms Kiyose's 24, 50-minute classes. A Japanese-born teacher who has
taught at the school for five years, Ms Kiyose is keenly aware that the
time allocated for the Japanese LOTE (Languages Other Than English)
program is less than ideal. "Repetition and consistency are essential to
grasp any language," she says.

Gardenvale - a school with a long history of academic success - is better
off than many primary schools. Yet principal Peter Boyes says the school
can manage only a 50-minute language class a week due to its strong
commitment to numeracy and literacy and other specialist areas, such as
physical education, art craft and performing arts. That said, the school
considers itself fortunate to have secured the services of a highly
regarded, native-speaking teacher who has recruited volunteer Japanese
students in the classroom to help her overcome constraints.

Feedback from a nearby secondary college where Japanese is also taught is
that Gardenvale pupils are among the more confident of the year 7 students
of Japanese. But, if language education trends continue, the vast majority
of these students will not continue with Japanese at senior secondary
level or learn to speak it effectively.

More than half of Australian students are said to be studying a second
language at any one time, but the rate among year 12 students has
languished between 12 and 14 per cent during the past decade.

In 1960, when either a maths or a language subject was required to gain a
university place, 40 per cent of year 12 students studied a language.

Notwithstanding that year 12 retention rates are significantly higher now
than they were in the 1960s, many advocates of languages studies cite
languages' unpopularity at senior secondary levels as evidence of a
languages crisis in this country and, are calling for a policy overhaul.

They also point to comparisons with other OECD countries that show
Australia has the lowest average number of hours devoted to foreign
language instruction for students aged nine to 14.

A strong advocate of language study, Bruce Wilson, a former chief
executive of the education support agency, Curriculum Corporation,
believes the teaching of languages in Australia "seems to be based on
polite fiction".

"The way we are doing it and the level of resources we have available
means it is unproductive for most students," he says. "Even after many
years of compulsory study of languages, most students can't speak them. If
that were true of mathematics or English, we would be disturbed."

The number of those studying a foreign language and the number of
languages taught, have grown massively in the past decade or so. This is
particularly so in Victoria, which is recognised as being at the forefront
of language education in this country.

According to the latest Victorian Government figures available, more than
90 per cent of primary schools teach languages. The most popular are
Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Indonesian, Italian and Japanese, with
Indonesian experiencing the biggest rise in the past few years.

During this time, there has been an overall increase in funds for
languages and the funding for languages in primary schools has become more
equal. This means funding of more established language studies has been
cut, while funding for newer ones has increased.

But there are concerns about the capacity of many primary schools to
deliver effective language programs.

There are plenty of examples of schools with enriching programs, among
them long-established, community-based programs and bilingual programs,
but anecdotal evidence suggests many primary school principals, teachers
and parents consider languages more trouble than they are worth.

Victorian Education Department guidelines recommend that primary schools
spend about 2.5 hours a week on foreign languages. However, according to
the Victorian Government's LOTE report in 2002, the average time for each
student is 63 minutes.

Fred Ackerman, president of the Victorian Primary School Association says
that while most principals, teachers and parents support the idea of
teaching a second language at primary level, the LOTE program, which is
one of eight core primary school subjects, is often "eighth in name,
eighth in delivery and eighth in priority".

Inadequate resources, teacher shortages, a crowded curriculum and concerns
among some parents that time would be better spent on helping children who
struggle with literacy are only a few of the valid reasons why languages
programs in some schools are not as good as they might be, he says.

Mr Ackerman also points out that the turnover of language teachers is
high, and it is difficult to find specialists with an aptitude for
teaching. As a result, the focus is often on "cultural experience" rather
than developing language skills.

This is also a problem for secondary school principals, who say teacher
shortages are exacerbated by the proliferation of languages taught in

According to the latest figures, Victoria's secondary schools teach 18
languages. At the primary level, 21 languages are offered.

Andrew Blair, president of the Victorian Secondary Principals Association,
says his association would like to see six core languages (ideally
Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, French, German and either Spanish or
Italian) taught throughout the country.

"We have a problem with the supply of teachers because we have inadequate
policy settings in place across the country," Mr Blair says. "We need to
bite the bullet and make a commitment to reducing the number of languages
available, to ensure supply."

Mr Blair is also concerned by the lack of consistency in language programs
between secondary schools and neighbouring primary schools.

A former principal of Mount Eliza Secondary College, he says the primary
school language backgrounds of students entering year 7 during his time at
the school often stretched to 14 languages. "It is ridiculous to assume
that just because a student is learning French one year that they can pick
up Italian the next," he says.

"Learning a foreign language is a marvellous window into the world for
young people, but there is little point in attempting to provide LOTE if
it is done in a disjointed way."

The idea of limiting the number of languages taught in Australian schools
also appeals to Bruce Wilson who believes most Australian students would
be better served if their choice of second languages was restricted to
two. He recommends Italian and Indonesian, which he says are easier to
learn than character-based languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

Japanese and Chinese are among the most popular languages at year 12
level, but there has been little change in the numbers of those studying
Japanese in the past decade. Enrolments in Chinese have risen at both
secondary and tertiary levels but from a low base. At tertiary level,
figures from the Asian Studies Association of Australia show that fewer
than 6000 students in Australia are studying Chinese at any level of
sophistication. It is estimated that nearly half of these students have
come from Asia, and many will take their multi-lingual skills back to
their own countries.

But the outlook for Indonesian is worse. According to a recent study by
Anne McLaren, a specialist in Chinese at the University of Melbourne, only
1800 students at Australian universities (2.25 per cent of the total
student population) were studying Indonesian last year, a drop of 15 per
cent since 2001.

Robin Jeffrey, a past president of the Asian Studies Association of
Australia and a professor of politics at La Trobe University, says the
shortage of Asian language skills became obvious when agencies working on
the tsunami relief effort vainly searched for people who could speak the
languages of the Indian Ocean rim.

Professor Jeffrey says governments and business both need to make a
greater commitment to Asian language study.

"The study of Asian languages not only adds to the skills of individual
Australians but to our capacity as a nation to deal productively and
sensibly with our Asian neighbours," he says.

Asian language specialists point to the Howard Government's decision in
2002 to withdraw $30 million a year in funding for the National Asian
Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy as a severe blow to
the future of Asian language education and the study of Asian culture.

But both federal and state governments insist that languages education is
a high priority.

For the next four years, the Federal Government has allocated $110 million
for its school language program (although this amounts to less than half
of the funding allocated to languages under the NALSAS program). The
funding also supports the studies of languages in after-hours schools
(called "community languages schools" in Victoria) and the development of
national projects.

Such projects are likely to be further emphasised in a new national
statement and four-year plan for languages now being developed by the
Ministerial Council of State and Territory ministers.

The statement and plan, scheduled for release this year, are expected to
emphasise the importance of developing strong networks between language
teachers throughout Australia and co-ordinating neighbouring primary and
secondary language programs.

But, without additional government funding, many language experts remain
concerned about the future of language education in Australia. They point
to European Union leaders who three years ago agreed to a goal of teaching
each child at least two foreign languages from an early age, to give
Europeans a competitive edge in the job market.

As Joseph Lo Bianco, professor of language and literacy at the University
of Melbourne, says: "Languages shouldn't be a luxury for schools, they
really are a core learning area."

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