<p class="standfirst"><strong style="DISPLAY: block">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.
</strong></p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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."
<p>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.
<p>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.
<p>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 years.
</p><a href="http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,21859394-27197,00.html">http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,21859394-27197,00.html</a><br clear="all"><br>-- <br>