How to solve Australia’s language learning crisis

By June 15, 2016Education
Chinese lg learning

Demand action from our politicians to make a LOTE compulsory!

The state of language learning in Australian schools is dire. This weekend the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article entitled “Why students are turning away from learning foreign languages.” According to figures offered in the article, language learning in Australia might well be described as moribund: today only around 10% of HSC students study a language other than English (LOTE); that’s down 30% from the 1960s when about 40% of Australian high school students studied a LOTE. In 2015, out of a NSW HSC student population of over 77,000, only around 7,000 took a LOTE.

The article explains this sad state of affairs in a number of ways:

  • Australians think knowing only English is just fine and everyone is learning English anyway
  • There is a lack of continuity in language programs
  • Language teaching in schools is tokenistic
  • Minimum class requirements of 15 students work against languages
  • The small number of required HSC subjects works against choosing a language

Overall, the take-away message of the article is bleak: “That message [=that languages are useful] is really not cutting through.”

A hard-working, passionate and dedicated high school LOTE teacher forwarded the link to the article to me with this question:

What more can us teachers do to change the Monolingual Mindset?!?!

The answer is really quite simple:

Demand action from our politicians to make a LOTE compulsory!

We don’t leave it up to students whether they want to study maths, English, sciences or sports. We consider these subjects part of the core curriculum. A LOTE needs to be a required part of a well-rounded education in the same way that these subjects are.

Sadly, our politicians seem incapable of even imagining this simple solution. The objection comes in the slogan of “the crowded curriculum” – focussing on literacy, numeracy, the sciences and whatnot simply leaves no space for language learning, or so we are told. Our prime minister sums up Australia’s linguistic tunnel vision on his blog:

Learning any language at school is valuable but difficult because there simply aren’t enough hours in the school calendar for most students to achieve any real facility – as many Australians have discovered when they tried out their schoolboy or schoolgirl French on their first visit to Paris! (Malcolm Turnbull blog)

What the prime minister fails to realize is that this is not a language education problem but an Australian problem. In NSW, for instance, a LOTE is compulsory for only 100 hours in Year 7 and 8. That is insufficient time on task and, indeed, a pointless exercise. It does nothing for students other than instil a sense of linguistic inadequacy in them. No one achieves fluency in another language in 100 hours, particularly if those 100 hours are delivered in bits of two hours each, spread out over a school year.

But just because Australian curricula are designed in a way that makes language learning a pointless exercise for most students, does not mean that this is true of all language learning in school: while most Australians “on their first visit to Paris” may well be struggling linguistically, most international tourists who come to Australia are coping just fine on their first visit to Sydney. This is not because it is easier for a French, German or Japanese school kid to learn English than it is for an Australian school kid to learn French (or any other language) but because their school systems invest heavily in English language teaching.

Does making a language other than English compulsory throughout schooling come at the expense of a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)?

http://www.news.com.au/national/pisa-report-finds-australian-teenagers-education-worse-than-10-years-ago/story-fncynjr2-1226774541525

Australian PISA scores in international comparison (Source: news.com.au)

No, it clearly does not, as a comparison with Finland shows. The Finnish education system is widely regarded as one of the best internationally, and regularly outperforms Australia in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings on numeracy, sciences and reading scores. In Finland, all students take two compulsory foreign languages throughout schooling; 44% of Finnish school students even study a third foreign language and 31% a fourth. In fact, all countries that outperform Australia on PISA – which measures numeracy, sciences and reading – and most countries that perform more or less the same, have at least one compulsory foreign language in their school system.

In these countries, language learning is a core plank of education. Not surprising given the many benefits of language learning (I won’t reiterate the multiple benefits of language learning here but if you wish, view a short overview or listen to a more detailed explanation). It is, in fact, not true that the message of the benefits of language learning “is really not cutting through.” It may not be cutting through to our politicians but it is cutting through to parents: recent research conducted by Livia Gerber, for instance, found that Australian parents very much wished to give their children “the gift of bilingualism.” Unfortunately, our public schools are failing them in this aspiration.

Further evidence that Australian families want high-quality language education for their children comes from the fact that families who can afford it increasingly choose the International Baccalaureate (IB) offered by private schools over the HSC. In the IB, all-round academic excellence includes the study of a second language. Universities value the all-rounder academic excellence of IB graduates, too: IB scores systematically translate into higher Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) scores than HSC scores. By contrast, choosing a language option in the HSC can work against high-achieving students because some languages, including those where the student is deemed a “background speaker”, scale poorly.

In sum, high-performing private schools following the IB system have a compulsory additional language; internationally, compulsory additional language learning is the norm, including in some of the world’s most highly performing educational systems. So, why not in Australia’s public schools? Why do we accept the linguistic myopia of our political leaders who can’t seem to imagine high-quality language education as a core plank of academic excellence?

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Nicole

    It is true that learning a foreign language takes a lot of time and studying Chinese or other languages for a small amount of time will certainly not make children bilingual, but there is one language that can be studied much faster and give children a sense of achievement because they will see their progress and not be put off by grammatical irregularities, etc. Then in high school they could learn more easily a national language. That language is Esperanto and it is much more useful than many people assume. In just one year over 400,000 people have started to learn Esperanto on the free website Duolingo. Each day 30 do complete the whole course. We need to start with an easy language to get children a love of foreign languages. When it comes to music do we start with very hard pieces, of course not. With languages it should be the same let’s start with an easy language and students will not be disheartened.

    • ALEXANDRA GREY

      But can’t any language be broken down into easier parts for beginners?

      • Nicole

        Yes, but the end result is that if you teach a national language, children will not be able to say much at all, not be able to take a book and read it, not be able to communicate beyond the basics and they will soon lose interest as it is too time-consuming to get to a useful level where they can express about everything they want to say. Even at beginning level you have to distinguish between der den die dem das, etc in German for example. You have to learn irregular verbs in many languages, as often the very common verbs are irregular, etc. Difficult spelling in French, etc. You can’t ignore those problems even for beginners. You can make little steps, but how long will it take to give the feeling that you can succeed?

        • Agi Bodis

          Hi Nicole, I see what you mean by starting with easier structures, like in music, but the beauty in languages is that you can learn functional language, and have a sense of achievement with any language, e.g. greetings, introductions, requests etc. So it depends more on language teaching methods rather than the languages. I don’t think languages can be classified as easy or difficult as these are subjective terms and they very much depend on what your first language is, what other languages you’ve been exposed to etc. just to name a few. And irregular verbs, spelling variation and even a different script should not be viewed as problem or at least I would not connect these features to a sense of achievement. I learnt 3 foreign languages in my childhood simply because it was the accepted norm and learning 2 languages was a requirement from the age of 9. It was as natural as studying maths or history. Secondly, children do not use the same complexity of language as adults, so the range of vocabulary a 5-year-old would need in a foreign language – on in their L1 for that matter – is of course much lower than that of an adult. As for the satisfying experience of reading in a foreign language, there are graded readers available for different levels and age groups in many languages.

          • Nicole

            Languages can be easier or harder. Of course it depends on several factors. Obviously if you learn a language that is similar to your native language like Germans learning Dutch it will be much easier than a Chinese person learning Dutch, but Esperanto is easier for everyone as everyone can appreciate the phonetic spelling, the lack of irregular verbs, the logic of compound words, etc. Having said that, Esperanto can still be easier for some people depending on their native language. But you can say without any doubt that it is easier to learn Esperanto than to learn French, for example. Chinese people find Esperanto much easier than English, for example. With national languages you do get a sense of achievement at the beginning when you knew nothing and then you can say a few simple things, but most people get disheartened a bit later when there is always so much more vocabulary to learn, grammatical structures that seem illogical, etc. It is frustrating when after several years of study you still can’t understand a little video in that language, etc.Each language has its beauty, but you can discover Esperanto’s beauty much faster than with the other languages. And the average child is interested in sports, in computers, in lots of things and just doesn’t have the time necessary to fully learn a foreign language. Even with the best teaching methods it takes an awful long time to learn French, for example and even longer to be able to read languages like Chinese or Japanese.

          • Agi Bodis

            You are probably speaking from the Australian point of view, where learning languages is not compulsory and consequently they are not as valued as in other contexts (see also Alexandra’s post above on scaling in HSC or Ingrid’s point about how much other countries invest in languages). Te point Ingrid is making in the post that a top-down approach is needed to provide continuity of language education as parents recognize the value. So if students see languages as valuable (because they are compulsory) they put as much effort in language learning as they do in sports and computers. And it doesn’t depend on irregular verbs, foreign script or weird spelling. We all have different motivations for learning but if languages are not valued in society, small wonder students turn to other subjects.

  • ALEXANDRA GREY

    The “no point” view of language learning in NSW is now so entrenched, having been around for decades. Thanks for shaking it up! In my own experience, the scaling of HSC subjects was the key problem and site for potential policy change. I was (am) a keen language learner, picked up a foreign language again as a second degree at uni and picked up a third after undergrad. But at high school I dropped both my language units in yrs 11 and 12 because they scaled badly compared to the effort needed and compared to my HSIE and STEM elective units. I wanted to have a high enough uni entry score to choose almost anything, including a double degree so a seemingly non-vocational language major would not be my only major because languages seemed to me and the people I took guidance from like a personal predilection not a valuable asset.

  • LauraSK

    Hi all, thanks for the interesting discussion. I like the argument for making languages compulsory. Policy reinforces/shapes attitudes. While ever language is completely elective, of course this will impact our attitude towards the way it is valued in our society. Also, this is the first I’m hearing of bad scaling for languages. I did ten units in the HSC and five of these were made up of foreign language units (Italian beginners and French continuers+ extension). If we count English, 70% of my units were languages. Yes, theoretically I could have done okay if I had taken STEM /HSIE units, but I doubt I’d have ranked as well amongst my peers.

    I completely agree with Agi that so much depends on the teaching strategies used. And of course, the starting point for students in terms of their own linguistic backgrounds. I have briefly looked at Esperanto in the past and found that yes, many of the words and structures had a certain familiarity for me, but I was also aware that this was due to my starting point, with English, French, Italian and Spanish. If I did not come to Esperanto with these languages, their vocabularies, sentence structures and alphabet, I would likely feel very differently.

    I guess the other point is one of motivation. Language learning motivation studies acknowledge that language learners are positively motivated if they consider that learning a particular language is within their ability. However, other factors also come into play, such as identity, and utility. I believe this may be a stumbling block for “regular” people to prioritise a language like Esperanto over other living languages, which they may feel could have some potential use to them in their work or travel, or to connect to differ communities.
    And making languages a compulsory part of the curriculum would also boost motivation. When considered as a core element of what it means to have an education, the level of utility and prestige connected with language learning must certainly increase.

    • Nicole

      The vocabulary of Esperanto comes partly from Latin and romance languages, so people who already know a language from that group will recognise some words straight away, but Esperanto uses suffixes and prefixes to reduce considerably the number of words that have to be memorised and that appeals very much to people from other language groups. Furthermore the grammar and spelling are easy and therefore you save hundreds of hours of study compared to other languages. If you scroll down on this page http://www.worldlanguage.info/contact-us.html you will be able to read what a Chinese lady thinks of learning Esperanto compared to learning English. Very interesting. Furthermore many people assume that speaking Esperanto is not very useful, but it can be extremely useful. While travelling you can easily find Esperanto speakers willing to let you sleep at their place and because the Esperanto community is not that big, you can trust those people much better than if an English speaker would offer you free accommodation. With Esperanto you get to communicate with people from many different countries: Nepal, Iceland, Hungary, etc. Now with the Internet it is so easy, just join a group on Facebook for example. One of the Esperanto groups has over 20,000 members, but there are many smaller groups too. The government tries to encourage children to learn Asian languages, but how many will be able to hold a normal conversation in Chinese or Japanese for example? Very few, so even though there are lots of Chinese and Japanese speakers learning some Chinese or Japanese will probably not be that useful in the students’ life and most of them will not get to use that language professionally.

  • Vanechop Henriette

    If only.. more people were open-minded enough
    to spend a couple of hours looking at Esperanto ! Not as an exclusive world
    language
    (all human beings are entitled to their native plus environmental
    language/s) but as a means of international communication which can be learned
    incredibly quickly and therefore be a very handy “bridge” when subsequently
    studying national tongues. Phonetic, logical, precise, it never ceases to
    delight me, compared to french, english, german…which have their charm but are
    so changeable and contain so many useless exceptions, declensions, etc.
    Esperanto grammar is inspired of asian languages.
    A glance at Duolingo,
    http://www.lernu.net,
    http://www.worldlanguage.info
    http://videosclub.in/watch?v=TT12A-OIAuo etc. etc. etc. I wish you as much fun
    as i am having !

  • Saluton Nicole,
    the thing is, as a society, we make it compulsory for all children to participate in formal education for a huge chunk of the first 15-20 years of their lives. That is because we believe it is beneficial for them as individuals and for society as a whole if the next generation receives a well-rounded education. Debates what precisely that education should or should not entail are, of course, forever raging: few people need calculus in their adult lives, but does that mean we should allow children to discontinue maths after they have learned the basics? Few people “need” Shakespeare, but does that mean we should allow children to discontinue English after they have acquired basic literacy? The examples could go on endlessly but the key point is that, in our so-called age of life-long learning, we need to equip children with the skills to engage in all kinds of learning: it is important to learn to think mathematically; to think scientifically; to be able to engage with literature and culture; to understand the social sciences. There is, in my mind, no doubt that the same is true of additional language learning: it is a key plank of preparing students to deal with whatever life may throw at them in today’s global world.

    • Nicole

      The problem is time, which subject do you want to take out of the curriculum to make place for a foreign language? Chinese people start to complain, for example, that because of the study of English, their children don’t have enough time for science, etc, that too much of their energy is spent trying to learn English and therefore the other subjects do suffer.

      • Well, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time: as I said in the article, Finland is doing it quite well and so do many other education systems …

  • ALEXANDROS BINOS

    I have always questioned why learning at least a second language in Australian schools is not compulsory considering the all-round benefits particularly cognitive and socio-cultural. Although the answer may be quite complex, i am personally drawn to the conclusion that our politicians see no reason since English is exponentially becoming the global language of communication, business, trade etc. Our Australian politicians are not loosing sleep over the myriad of benefits of fluently learning a second language unless it will further and directly increase their coffers. Sadly, learning has pervasively become a business.

  • NAMI NARIMATSU

    I have acknowledged that English has been central to a common language over the world, English subjects are compulsory from a five-year grade at Japanese schools, and a required subject of entrance exams at high schools and universities in Japan. Additionally, It is understandable that Australian students tend to reluctant to study a second language due to English dominance. However, I wonder about the statement that the crowded curriculum has no space for language learning. Although some countries, where English education is compulsory, cover other subjects including mathematics, science,, reading, and so on, what makes Australian education curriculum so packed?

  • Flora Launay

    Thank you for this brilliant article Ingrid. To be honest, I am quite shocked to know that learning a foreign language is NOT compulsory in Australia. I had never thought about it and took it for granted that it must be part of the curicula. Coming from a French background, learning two foreign languages is the norm for me and I believed that the majority of the countries had the same requirements in terms of languages. I could not imagine that Australia, a developed and rich country, did not have this requirement! How can the politicians ignore the benefits it brings to students? How can they give such futile excuses to not implement a foreign language in the curicula? Even though I understand that maths, science, and other subjects are important, I cannot accept the “we do not have time” excuse. When there’s a will, there’s a way. To me, the situation is not admissible and parents, school teachers, and education staff should fight for the implementation of a mandatory foreign language at school. Learning a foreign language is so much more than just learning rules and vocabulary. It allows students to open up to a new world and become citizens of the world. Isn’t it the whole purpose of schooling in the end?

  • Brendan Kavanagh

    I can speak to my own experience on this. Ten years ago I began teaching English as a second language in China. The classrooms there embraced an immersive approach to language learning, with native English
    speakers speaking only English in the classroom.

    I married into a Chinese family and moved back to Australia to study Mandarin in university. My wife wanted to be a Mandarin teacher here in Australia, but despite studying at some of the top universities in China, she had to study all over again – plus achieve a near impossible IELTS score in order to register. (see links below)

    https://www.facebook.com/ttadelaide/videos/1474405435914401/

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiJgNHSiesI

    On the other hand, those at the bottom of my Mandarin class were easily able to walk into jobs as Mandarin teachers.

    Despite talk of moving into a Chinese Century, it appears to me as though the system for hiring Mandarin teachers is highly in favour of native English speakers with minimal Mandarin proficiency, than Mandarin speakers with ‘imperfect’ English. It is hard to imagine children achieving a high level of Mandarin fluency under this system.

  • Julie

    I do agree that the explanation of ‘crowded curriculum’ does not make sense to the objection of placing more compulsory foreign languages in public schools. It is not in Australia where students have to study literacy, numeracy and science. The data, moreover, have shown that even students were exposed to less compulsory foreign language learning, they were still outperformed by students from other countries. As China was presented here on the top, I’d like to share what I experienced when I was there for my study. We may have heard a lot of stories or come across statistics about the suicide rates committed by Chinese students due to the pressure they had from study which could explain how ‘crowded’ the curriculum is. However, learning foreign languages is compulsory to all students. In university, for example, there are more options for students to select such as French, German, Spanish, and so on. Though they are free to choose the language, learning any of them is still compulsory.

  • Hanne Houbracken

    As a Belgian student, who had to study three compulsory foreign languages in high school and who has a Bachelor degree in English-Swedish, coming into contact with both American and Australian people with knowledge of only one language, English, is a weird experience. As my Australian friend here said: “I wish I could speak another language but my entire life I’ve only been surrounded by English. English was always enough. Australia is not like Europe, where you travel a couple of hours and you have to speak another language.” The minister believes English is enough. I don’t think it is.