Australia moves to kick-start foreign language teaching from infancy to postgraduate standard

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jun 7 18:23:02 UTC 2007

*AUSTRALIA'S top research universities, the Group of Eight, are doing the
nation a favour in moving to kick-start foreign language teaching from
infancy to postgraduate standard.*
The imperatives for the case are compelling. In the 1960s, 40 per cent of
Year 12 students studied a second language, compared with 15 per cent today.
In Queensland, the fall-off is even more serious, with just 5.8 per cent of
Year 12 doing so. At university level, the number of languages available has
fallen from 66 to 29 in the past 10 years, with just 3 per cent of students
studying an Asian language. In contrast, 300 million Chinese students are
currently studying English, while in Finland, where school students
consistently outperform Australia on international literacy and numeracy
tests, all children take three languages throughout schooling, 44 per cent
take a fourth language and 31 per cent a fifth language.

Today, the Go8 and the Australian Academy of the Humanities are
co-sponsoring a National Summit on Languages in Canberra, bringing together
language teachers and representatives from business and government. They are
seeking bipartisan support for effective measures to develop our national
language capacity. Business is already firmly onside. A few months ago, the
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry issued a blueprint for education
which advocated compulsory language lessons at school from the age of seven
or younger, recognising the fact that languages can be learnt effectively
and enjoyed from early childhood. In a policy paper prepared for the summit,
the Go8 shows how and why Australia's lack of language skills is putting
future economic growth in jeopardy. The reasons are obvious in fields such
as tourism and international education, but the impacts are also being felt
in other industries and by individuals.

In Europe for example, Amazon moved its $US8.4 billion retail customer
service centre from the UK to Ireland to take advantage of the Emerald
Isle's superior language skills. More than 40 per cent of adult Irish men
and women speak a language other than English (and Irish). As the Go8 paper
noted: "Monolingual English native speakers are already losing the advantage
in their own language because English language skills are becoming a basic
skill around the world. "Australians are increasingly competing for jobs
with people who are just as competent in English as they are in their own
native language and possibly one or two more. The London business world
prefers graduates from European universities rather than British
institutions because they speak English as well as at least one other
language, and often two or three."

In Queensland as in other states, the chronic shortage of foreign language
teachers will be a major stumbling block in overcoming the problem and,
unfortunately, this week's State Budget did nothing to address the issue.
All schools have trouble filling language teachers' jobs and independent
schools regularly have to look interstate to fill jobs. While most of those
Year 12 students learning languages are aiming to proceed to university,
there is no reason that more vocational education students should not learn
a second language at a top level as well, especially those interested in
careers in hospitality, tourism and child care.

Apart from a much needed injection of government funds, which the Go8 says
is vital, lateral thinking will also be essential to boost foreign language
teaching and build up the pool of potential future teachers. Schools with
the resources to do so (or with generous community volunteers) could find a
wealth of talent among local immigrants who could help children as young as
Prep. In the past, such efforts have fallen by the wayside because of lack
of classroom discipline, with some language specialists unable to control
the children as well as qualified teachers.

Should such an approach be tried again, those brought in from outside
deserve the backing of a classroom teacher present during the lessons, if
necessary, to keep the children focused. Online learning, too, would
probably have a place. But the universities – which train teachers – will
probably have the biggest role to play. Despite the shortages of secondary
teachers in languages, Queensland is currently producing too many primary
school teachers, many of whom find difficulties in securing full-time jobs.
How much more employable they would be if, as part of their three-year
degree courses, they had studied a foreign language during their university

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