Australia: Language, the missing word in our schools

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jul 6 17:04:03 UTC 2007

Language, the missing word in our schools
Matthew Absalom
July 6, 2007

WALKING around Preston Market this weekend, I was overjoyed to hear
not a word of English spoken around me. Despite the fact that
Melbourne is a linguistic hotbed, Australia has an appalling record
with languages. Commentators such as the Australian Council of State
School Organisations label this "an international embarrassment and
national disgrace". Influential groups such as the Group of Eight
Australian research-intensive universities call for "a new attitude
towards languages and the learning of languages in Australia". Talk
about languages in our schools is a hot topic. But nobody is talking
about the elephant in the room — how language programs in government
schools undermine languages education.

To understand this better, we need to survey some of the programs
offered. In primary schools, we find immersion/bilingual programs,
language awareness programs and Languages Other Than English (LOTE)
An immersion/bilingual program is one where everything is taught in
the language being studied. So, as well as doing maths in English, you
would do it in, say, Chinese. This would happen in all areas of the
curriculum and it requires teachers with expert language skills.
Language awareness programs focus on culture and include varied
exposure to the target language. LOTE programs concentrate more
strongly on the target language as the object of study.

In Australia, Italian has long been the language spoken most after
English. It is also one of the most taught languages in Victorian
government schools — it accounts for 25 per cent of all language
enrolments and its continuing strength in Victoria can be linked to
patterns of community settlement in Melbourne. Startlingly, despite
this, in 2005 there was not a single bilingual/immersion program for
Italian at primary level in any Victorian government school. Even more
perplexing is the imbalance between full-blown LOTE programs (where
Italian is taught as a language) and language awareness programs
(where students do things such as study Venice's Carnevale, make masks
and perhaps learn a little vocabulary).

In Italian primary programs in 2005, more students statewide (53 per
cent) were in a language awareness classroom than those studying the
language (47 per cent). Even at secondary schools, 4 per cent of
students were only offered language awareness in Italian. This is a
grave state of affairs, given the place of Italian in Victoria's
At the recent "Languages in Crisis" summit in Canberra, a West
Australian academic reported that student numbers in Chinese languages
had risen by 90 per cent in the past 10 years. Chinese languages rank
with English among the most spoken languages in the world, so it is
hardly surprising that there should be strong growth in Chinese.

In Victorian government schools, Chinese enrolments rose 21 per cent
between 1999 and 2005. Numerically, Italian is much stronger. But
Chinese enrolments point to a much higher emphasis on the language
itself, with students in bilingual and LOTE programs outnumbering
those in language awareness programs. Language awareness programs are
available across all languages and they raise serious questions. How
valid is it to count these weak forms of language education as
language programs? Would we accept courses in maths awareness in place
of actual maths education, where tomorrow's adults get down and dirty
with numbers, integers, angles and algebra?

Perhaps we have such low expectations of language education because
about 30 years ago our schools abandoned the rigorous teaching of
English as a language. In my first-year university Italian classrooms,
I routinely have to teach students basic language concepts. My
students are among the highest achievers in VCE and have outstanding
results in English and Italian — some having studied Italian for the
full 13 years of school. But their knowledge of language is still
precarious. In maths classes, students are often encouraged to put
down their working-out. This strategy helps to ingrain knowledge of
maths as a system. We need a similar approach with languages,
particularly if students begin to study the language in secondary
school. They need to know how it works as a system. Making masks
doesn't teach this.

I'm not advocating a return to bland grammar-based courses. But we
have tipped the balance in favour of fun and fluff too far the other
way, perhaps in an attempt to deal with the difficulties of teaching
languages in schools. People often cite the rise of the internet as
furthering English's march to world domination. The attitude that
"English is all you need" lulls us into dangerous complacency. Recent
research, such as David Crystal's work on language and the internet,
shows that it has given new life to a range of minority languages and
points to a multilingual future.

Since speakers of English as a second language outnumber English
native speakers, monolingual English speakers are the global minority.
They are likely to have difficulty participating in a multilingual
society. Australia is a highly multicultural society, which acts as if
it were monolingual. With most of the world's population being at
least bilingual, we are falling behind. It is about time that we
argued for language programs in schools to focus on what they're meant
to: language.

Matthew Absalom is a lecturer in the Italian studies program at
Melbourne University.

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