[lg policy] Australia: 'Get serious' on teaching languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 30 15:18:05 UTC 2009

September 30, 2009 12:11am

'Get serious' on teaching languages

Bernard Lane | September 30, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

LIGHTWEIGHT programs that give language learning a bad name should be
wound up as part of a nationwide attempt to engage schools, teacher
training and ethnic communities in a serious culture of language
learning, a new report recommends. "You need a symbolic change," said
Joe Lo Bianco, the University of Melbourne language planner who wrote
the report. "The focus in the debate should now be what constitutes
serious effort (in language learning)."  The report, released today by
the Australian Council for Educational Research, cites the case of a
language teacher who had to service four schools in four days, each
with about 150 students.

Professor Lo Bianco said superficial programs undermined public
confidence in language learning. "People judge the entire enterprise
on the basis of its weakest link and conclude absurd things like,
'Australians can't learn languages'," he said. He said there was a
direct link between the malaise of languages at university level, the
realities at school and students' choices. His report calls for closer
co-operation between language departments and education faculties, as
well as a reform of teacher training to cater for an increase
inbilingual and immersion language programs.

The report suggests weak programs are the result of poorly resourced
and staffed schools responding to changeable language policy driven by
pragmatic interests such as regional diplomacy, trade or the labour
market. "What is required is a comprehensive rationale for languages,
and in particular efforts to develop a humanistic and intellectual
legitimation for all education, which would inevitably contain a
permanent and central role for languages," the report says. Separate
from the inherently educative task of language learning, private
providers are best placed to meet the "temporary, urgent and
unpredictable (language) needs" dictated by foreign policy and the

Since 1970 there have been 67 reports related to language policy and
"continual chopping and changing of priority". Despite the official
rhetoric in favour of languages, students have shown "an acute
sensitivity" to the lack of seriousness, rigour and prestige in the
programs on offer. The report shows that in years11 and 12,
participation in languages collapses. In year 7, almost 80 per cent of
students take a language. This falls to 10.3 per cent in year 12
"There is a perception that they won't do well (in a language) and
will get marked down," Professor Lo Bianco said. This view persisted
despite some universities introducing bonus entry points for a year 12

The report also points to weak preparation in the primary years - 35
to 60 minutes a week in language class being common, meaning that
seven years of schooling yields only 200 hours of tuition - and
problems in attracting and training teachers. The report says there is
"a reservoir of latent bilingualism" in ethnic communities. Public
schools should work with the clubs, societies and after-hours schools
of those communities. More bilingual staff are needed to give children
"a universal apprenticeship in learning how to learn languages" at an
early age. The report says education ministries should guarantee
children will receive 150 hours a year of tuition in any of seven
languages - Mandarin, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese
and Spanish - from primary to secondary, if necessary at a hub high
school in each region.

Professor Lo Bianco said these languages had been chosen because they
had, or could soon have, the capacity needed for expansion. He
estimated the proposals in his report would demand about $50 million a
year in federal money, across six years, as well as reallocation of
existing state funding.


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