My daughter attends a public elementary school in NSW where the children are taught French for one hour each week. In 2009, she was away from her school for one year and did not receive any French instruction during that year. When she returned, it turned out that she had not missed anything and was at exactly the same level as the children who had received an additional year of French instruction. While I’d like to pride myself on the idea that my daughter is exceptionally gifted in French, the reality is that the other children had made no progress whatsoever in that one year. As a matter of fact, after more than 3 years of French instruction, the knowledge of this particular group of children is negligible: the only “sentence” they can confidently utter is “Bonjour, Madame!” They can count from 1 to 10 with difficulty and their pronunciation of these numbers is shocking. In more than three years, they haven’t learnt a single point of French grammar and as they are not required to memorize the basic vocabulary they are taught, they have difficulty even with such basic words as color or animal terms.

The only perceptible knowledge children are gaining in this kind “language teaching” is stereotypical and pseudo-cultural  information about France such as the fact that the national dress includes the beret or that French people love pancakes. The French lesson in another school in which the worksheet in the picture was used, for instance, involved joint reading of the English information at the bottom and then proceeded to a coloring-in competition, in which the “French learner” from which I got the worksheet quickly lost interest as is evident from the fact that only two colors were used in a perfunctory way. At no time were the meager five vocabulary items in the right-hand column even highlighted or brought to the learners’ attention in any way.

Over the seven years of elementary school, 40 hours of French instruction per year add up to 280 hours. Given the meager to non-existent outcomes I have just described, they are 280 hours wasted. The reasons for the total waste of 280 hours of valuable learning time are complex and include the following:

  • Insufficient time on task: one hour of language learning per week just doesn’t get you anywhere. Most European countries devote much more time to language learning and still manage to perform at the same level as or at even higher levels than Australia in literacy and numeracy in international assessments.
  • Lack of status: French (or any other language that a school might adopt in NSW) is not considered a key learning area, which means no one is taking it seriously. On the report cards it appears in the same section and format as participating in the school band, the chess club or similar voluntary activities. The teacher is a casual who only comes along for French lessons.
  • Poorly qualified language teachers: Many of the language teachers I know here eke out a living as casuals serving a number of schools where they teach often more than one language, none of which they may be particularly proficient in. Their qualifications and language proficiency often are not great to begin with and then their precarious employment becomes a disincentive, if not an obstacle to pursue any kind of professional development.
  • Confusion between language and culture: language learning is first and foremost learning the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Language learning in school should be about learning pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and texts. Questions of culture and identity come much later. For French teaching to be mostly about berets and crepes is a bit as if maths were mostly about looking at photos of Einstein and being taught that mathematicians favor crazy hairdos.

None of this is new and it is only a slice of the disaster that is Australian languages education. Three of Australia’s leading linguists, Michael Clyne†, Anne Pauwels and Roland Sussex called languages education in Australia “a national tragedy and an international embarrassment” in 2007.

Now the draft for a new national languages curriculum has been published for consultation by the government (the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority). While it is encouraging to see that the draft curriculum makes languages education compulsory for all through all levels of schooling, I’m disappointed to see that none of the concerns I have highlighted above as key problems are addressed in more than a perfunctory manner. The problems of insufficient time on task, lack of status, poorly qualified teachers and the over-emphasis on culture and identity at the expense of actual language learning will not go away with the introduction of this national curriculum. The document doesn’t even inspire confidence that these problems may have been recognized, let alone that there might be a will to address them.

None of this is new, as I said, and so it beggars believe that most of the excellent work in Australian languages education is not even referenced. What can we expect of a draft national languages curriculum that doesn’t even reference such basics as Michael Clyne’s Australia’s Language Potential?! Clyne, Michael (2005). Australia’s Language Potential UNSW Press

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
  • Jonti Glass

    Maybe its pointless teaching other languages to very young children in a situation in which they aren’t used anywhere in the child’s experience in any case. Its too soon.
    We know children learn languages with ease if they need to learn them. But for suburban Australian kids being taught French in an environment where thats the sole exposure to French its something completely arbitrary and unrelated in any way to their experience. They are too young to have intellectual reasons for wishing to learn it.
    So its not going to be any different if taught better.. because its pointless

    • It’s pointless if, as a society, we make a collective decision to make it pointless. At present it’s pointless and the national curriculum is not going to change that. However, many European nations, for instance, have made a collective decisions that languages teaching at elementary level is worth it and they are doing well although the kids don’t have a more immediate reason to learn foreign languages than Australian kids, either. If we left children to their own devices, I don’t know how many of them would go and study maths …

      • jonti glass

        No. I would dispute your claim about Europe. European countries are full of multilingualism. Even if the country is monolingual as a policy- there are always other languages being spoken — toyMany european children are exposed to different languages in their daily life in a natural normal way and the average suburban Australian child living in a monolingual environment is not. I am sure language teaching in the schools, when it involves community languages, is completely different from the experience you are describing. My experience is that it is. Children at our local primary school learn a language they can use in their daily life. If they dont have relatives who speak that language they have friends who do. Its meaningful not because of any policy or curriculum- its meaningful because its their life.

        CHildren DO learn math skills on their own- they may not have them formally but they understand concepts of adding and taking away because those concepts occur in life.

        • If your assessment of your local primary school is correct, you are very fortunate. Maybe it’s part of the bilingual education program, which was started in 2010 (with four schools in NSW participating: Rouse Hill Public and Murray Farm Public in Sydney’s northwest, Scotts Head Public on the North Coast, and Campsie Public in Sydney’s inner-west). Great program — too bad that there are only 4 of them across the state!
          I, like every other person I know with a home language other than English (and according to the 2006 census, we account of almost 30% of the population in my suburb; in line with the rest of metropolitan Sydney) observe a complete and total disconnect between the languages of the home and the languages of the school.

          • jonti

            I still believe that no child can learn a language or even understand its relevance at an early age if there is no use for the language being learned. And relevance cant be imposed arbitrarily. So French is clearly irrelevant for the children. They might just as well be learning to write hieroglyphics. What are the 30% other languages in your primary school catchment area? Do you know? If you do why get the majority language taught instead of french

            All I know is that kids in schools where a language relevant for community, or even religious reasons, is taught have a different experience.

  • Hailin

    Thank you for your impressive post, Ingrid! In China, we alos have this problem on language education. Chinese students devote so many hours on learning english but it turns out theri language proficiency is not very good. Researchers should really dig the hidden reason.

    • I’m not sure the reasons behind educational success in language learning are particularly hidden: it’s obviously a complex mix of factors but we know which countries and educational systems do languages education well and which don’t …

  • I keep hearing the predicament of Japanese language teachers (many of whom I know are casuals) at all levels of Australian education. At the tertiary level in Queensland, for example, I heard that Japanese language teaching has been significantly downsized, if not abandoned all together at some universities, making the Japanese teachers feel disposable on the one hand, and compete desperately against each other for few teaching positions on the other. In a context where their profession is undermined, and their linguistic capital and contribution to Australian society unrecognised, how can we expect our language teachers to be proud of their work, to tell the students that foreign language learning is beneficial, and to invest in further professional and curriculum development? I hope the final version will find a way to address this issue more seriously along with the other three key problems you outlined in this timely post.

  • Wamut

    Here’s a cool, not-thought-through idea – wouldn’t it be great if the National Curriculum opened up the flexible option of allowing the LOTE of choice to be determined by the language capacity of the students of a given class. E.g. A class with a few Vietnamese or Sudanese kids in it can choose to have Vietnamese or Dinka as the language they learn – this would (hopefully) automatically make the language more relevant to the students, (hopefully) create a more cohesive, inclusive class and (hopefully) involve migrant families more in classroom and maybe give parents or grandparents employment and/or proud roles as educators.

    And the principle could be easily extended to remote schools wanting to implement Aboriginal language programs in their classrooms.

    • Love the idea! One of the problems with the present system is that no one “owns” it and no one cares. As it is, the linguistic backgrounds students and their families bring to class are at best ignored and at worst treated as a problem…

    • Ingrid Weiss

      Relevance to child, good teachers, non monolingual mindsets, involved community and parents: all are relevant. The who cares, blaming culture is often at the heart. In countries where language learning and teaching work, everyone makes it relevant …just as maths and science can be relevant or totally boring!. Its about time that everyone took ownership of how and what is taught. There are children in school for many hours who also dont write English properly after many years, spell properly or internalise concepts. The value is measure by far more than content knowledge. How is the love of a subject cultivated? Who cultivates motivation? There are so many factors involved and yes it is sad that the experts like Clyne are ignored repeatedly.

  • Sepideh

    It seems to be a problem in most of the worlds educational systems, we have the same problem in Iran and each year we waste many hours in schools to learn English and Arabic.Although everyone knows about this waste of time but unfortunately theres no attempt to change this useless method of teaching languages.

  • Victoria B.

    Thank you for your newest post, Ingrid. I thought this time I really should reply as well…

    Of course, children understand what languages are for: to construct and convey messages – also through languages other than their home language. And what is more exciting than exchanging ideas and feelings? Isnt that what brings purpose and enjoyment in using a language: interaction?
    Yes, it is easier to understand this concept if they find these languages used in play or communication. But the teachers actions, speech, and in one word teaching can achieve the same. Thus, in suburban Sydney, it does not necessarily have to be a language used by friends (although, it makes it easier). It then stands and falls with the teacher and the teaching system. If children understand the purpose of language, they learn naturally and with joy and wouldnt consider it as pointless!
    Surely, they need to build a good relationship to the teacher etc. – nothing that can be done in 1 hour weekly…

  • khan

    Dear Ingrid

    Thanks for your post. In Pakistan the recent policy has made English Language as a compulsory subject right from class one at least in policy document without enhancing teachers competence, teaching material, examination practices. As a result, those who go to public sector schools end up with little proficiency in it and those who could afford private sector schooling have stand better chance in life.

    Recitation from Holy Koran is taught from class one onwards where children are taught how to read out Koranic text without any meanings. It is said that even recitation from it, gives Allahs blessing in hereafter, therefore all children must learn to read it no matter how many hours it takes in ones academic career.


  • Louisa OKelly

    I couldnt agree with you more. We have been lucky enough in our travels to have Lillie and Niamh both attend a pre-school that was multilingual. The dominant language in the Kindergarten was English but the children were regularly exposed to French and Japanese and were taught both French and Japanese at a basic level – but they understood a lot more than they could speak.

    At their primary school we are blessed with the children continuing with French and unlike your own experience they are taught to converse and write in French as well as having their pronunciation corrected. They are exposed to French films and plays, culture etc throughout the year. They are required in their French class from year 3 to only speak in French and the teacher does not speak in English during the class. Students are also invited to join the French club for further immersion.

    Unfortunately the same cannot be said for their gaeilge anymore … the language is an endangered species for this generation.

  • Your critique of the Australian language teaching system explains a few things. I have tutored students learning French in school and have been uniformly appalled at their lack of proficiency at the outset. It seems that for students to do well at a language, they must have some outside intervention – tutoring after school, extended stay in France, or at the very least a French-speaking relative, as well as extreme dedication to getting it right. This is in stark contrast to the almost daily second-language classes I have attended in five countries, across three continents while growing up. While student success varies based on many factors, including innate aptitude and interest, I cant help feeling that even the brightest Australian students seem to not even be given a fighting chance, at least in mainstream schools.

  • Loy Lising

    Hi, Ingrid. In 1985, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis published a report on their national survey of languages other than English in Australia project. Based on the results of their interviews with members of the communities and high school students of German and Macedonian ethnolinguistic backgrounds, they focused their discussion on and explored the question: Community Languages: Politics or pedagogy? It seems to me that the answer to this question then and the answer to it 25+ years later remains the same – that national language planning in this country is very much based on politics, on what is perceived to be popular, and never on sound pedagogy. I did a quick check, and youve guessed it; they are not referenced either.

  • A worthy post.

    My anecdotal experience with high school language teaching includes my friend who taught Indonesian without qualifications (though did speak Bahasa well) and my own (10-20 year old) experience as a student. I was mostly discouraged by the attitudes of staff and students (two languages at a time is too difficult – you should drop one).

    Im equally discouraged by the mystical surrounding of knowing languages. The myth in Australia is that languages are difficult, and only special people can learn them. If you know a language, you apparently have some kind of mystical power. Sure, some people may have to work a little harder than others, but languages are no harder to learn than maths or piano or riding a horse. Its easy to get a base, and more work is needed to get a polished ability.

    I dont think we can get any further with Australia and languages until we can somehow dismiss this mystic cloud around language-learning.

  • Angela

    My son, fluent and literate in Japanese, was recently set a new “challenge” by his non-native Japanese teacher at school, after numerous attempts by me to have his particular language-learning needs in that area recognized. Since his peers, who have had weekly Japanese lessons for the past three years, are now being introduced to hiragana, the most elementary of the three Japanese scripts, the teacher gave him a Japanese text that had been transliterated into the Roman alphabet and asked him to reproduce it in hiragana! Having been educated in Japan solely through the medium of Japanese, my son did not recognize the text in front of him as in any way related to that language. But he soon got the hang of it and gave it a go – only to be reprimanded for making “mistakes”. I was particularly bemused by this approach since the teacher is Chinese and as such could be an enormous help in my son’s ongoing (private) study of kanji.

  • Peta Lowry

    Ciao Ingrid, great post and I agree 110% with what you say, however my experience is now slowly starting to change my mind about languages education in Australia. Ours is a long story, but to cut it short we relocated to Italy in August 2009 with the sole purpose of providing our two children, then 6 11 with a bilingual education because we could not achieve this in Australia. My husband I are both monolingual and have no other language in our family. Both our boys went straight into Italian public schools and are now fluent in Italian and in fact doing better than most of their peers with their Italian language studies. One big realisation is that both boys are now learning English grammer in Italy, something they would never have achieved in Australia. This is also meaning that they are learning what languages are all about and giving them an understanding of why they are so important. Both will be going on to learn at least one more language and hopefully more during their

  • Peta Lowry

    remaining 12 to 18 mths here in Italy. Our biggest concern at the moment is how we maintain their language learning when we return to Australia, without having to go to the added expense and time to do it outside of school hours.
    Hence my interest in the national curriculum discussions. Any ideas or suggestions on how we tackle this would be greatly appreciated.
    Just back to my comment about grammer, why was it ever dropped from the curriculum in the first place? I never got taught it and now as an adult am struggling to learn a second language mainly due to the fact I dont have any understanding of the basics of languages. By the looks of this post I probably dont even spell it properly…….
    Good work Ingrid, keep up the questioning of the new curriculum and I hope you can make a difference.

  • L Cerny

    Backpackers from many countries come through our beautiful city of Townsville. They all speak English, and often other languages, very well. It is embarassing that other countries can provide a successful language component into their curriculum and we have not managed to do so. The is a program called AIM – Accelerated Integrated Method- which has seen much success in many countries. Our National Curriculum planners should have a close look at it.

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