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National Statement for Languages Education in Australian Schools

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs

The second meeting of the MCEETYA Working Party on languages education is being held in Adelaide on 10 March 2006. The meeting will be deciding on ways to implement the National Statement for Languages Education in Australian Schools 2005–2008 endorsed last year. Curriculum Leadership will be promoting ongoing developments in languages education during the course of the MCEETYA project. The current article is an abridged version of the 2005 report of the same title published by MCEETYA. The full publication includes a statement on the National Plan for Languages Education endorsed by Australian State and Territory education systems.


Ministers of Education are committed to the vision of quality languages education for all students, in all schools, in all parts of the country. We believe that through learning languages our students and the broader Australian community gain important benefits.

Learning languages:

  • enriches our learners intellectually, educationally and culturally
  • enables our learners to communicate across cultures
  • contributes to social cohesiveness through better communication and understanding
  • further develops the existing linguistic and cultural resources in our community
  • contributes to our strategic, economic and international development
  • enhances employment and career prospects for the individual.

Our learners are the future of our nation. The development of their language skills and inter-cultural understanding is an investment in our national capability and a valuable resource. This was recognised in the 1989 National Goals for Schooling, and re-affirmed in the 1999 National Goals, where the Languages (Other Than English) learning area was identified as one of the eight key learning areas, and one in which all learners are expected to attain high standards of knowledge, skills and understandings. This National Statement and National Plan for Languages Education in Australian Schools will further progress towards that goal.

We live in times of rapid change. Information and communication technologies are accelerating the movement of people and ideas across the globe and expanding the range of communities in which people operate. Twenty-first century education needs to engage with, and be responsive to, this changing world. It needs to develop in learners the knowledge, understanding and attributes necessary for successful participation and engagement within and across local, regional and global communities, and in all spheres of activity.

Language skills and cultural sensitivity will be the new currency of this world order.

English is Australia’s national language. It is also growing as an international language of communication. But English alone is not enough for our learners. In our increasingly multilingual world, more people speak two languages than one, and contact with speakers of other languages is rapidly growing.

Australia must build on its diverse linguistic and cultural environment which is a result of its Indigenous history, geography and migration.

Australian Indigenous languages, the languages of Australia ’s original inhabitants, are the nation’s first languages. There are many active Australian Indigenous languages, dialects, creoles, pidgins and Aboriginal English dialects spoken in. Their importance to Australian Indigenous people and to the broader community is acknowledged and valued. In addition, migration by people from across the globe has brought with it English and more than 150 additional languages. This is Australia’s linguistic and cultural landscape. It is a valuable base from which to develop the linguistic capabilities necessary to be successful in the international community of the 21st century.

Education in a global community brings with it an increasing need to focus on developing inter-cultural understanding. This involves the integration of language, culture and learning. Inter-cultural language learning helps learners to know and understand the world around them, and to understand commonality and difference, global connections and patterns. Learners will view the world, not from a single perspective of their own first language and culture, but from the multiple perspectives gained through the study of second and subsequent languages and cultures. For learners who study their background or heritage language, it provides a strengthened sense of identity.

Inter-cultural language learning contributes to the overall education of learners, developing in them the capabilities to:

  • communicate, interact and negotiate within and across languages and cultures
  • understand their own and others’ languages, thus extending their range of literacy skills, including skills in English literacy
  • understand themselves and others, and to understand and use diverse ways of knowing, being and doing
  • further develop their cognitive skills through thinking critically and analytically, solving problems, and making connections in their learning.

Such capabilities assist learners to live and work successfully as linguistically and culturally aware citizens of the world.

National developments

Quality languages education is not yet part of the learning experience of all students, in all schools, in all parts of the country. The challenge that must now be addressed is how best to further integrate quality languages education into the mainstream curriculum, and into program delivery by all schools.

Languages education for all students is a relatively new concept in the history of Australian schooling. While the study of languages has long been an established part of the curriculum in many secondary schools, it was generally seen as an area of study for the academically able.

This view changed significantly in the 1990s when most States and Territories introduced languages programs in primary schools as part of their commitment to the National Goals. Since then, a great deal of development has occurred in terms of numbers of programs, numbers of languages learners and the number of languages taught. In 2003, the Ministerial Council of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) undertook a Review of Languages Education in Australian Schools. The Review found that nationally:

  • approximately 50% of students were learning a language in mainstream schools
  • there were 146 languages being taught in both mainstream and non-mainstream school settings. This included 103 languages (including 68 Australian Indigenous languages) taught in government, Catholic and independent schools and 69 languages taught through after-hours ethnic/community languages schooling
  • the six languages most commonly taught were, in order of enrolment numbers: Japanese, Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Chinese. More than 90% of languages learners were learning one of these languages.

The Review also found that the expansion of languages programs had created significant challenges which still need to be addressed. They include:

  • the need for appropriately qualified and trained teachers
  • continuity in languages learning within schools, and from primary to secondary levels and beyond
  • adequate time allocations
  • supportive timetabling practices
  • resourcing
  • whole school commitment.

There is also an ongoing need to convey to the broader community the real and achievable benefits of effective languages education for all learners.

The Review proposed that stronger collaboration at the national level was needed to further enhance the quality of the language learning experience and to make it a reality for all learners. Ministers of Education endorsed this call for a renewed national effort by agreeing to the development of a new National Statement for Languages Education, and an initial four-year National Plan for Languages Education.

Implications for jurisdictions and schools

In order to realise the vision of quality languages education for all students, in all schools, in all parts of the country, jurisdictions and schools need to take into account matters relating to quality and provision.

Quality programs depend on quality teachers. Quality teachers need supportive program conditions and a professional working environment. They also need to be well trained and have opportunities to participate in ongoing professional learning, which focuses on the development of their linguistic, cultural and pedagogical proficiencies.

Learning languages is a cumulative process. The development of deep understanding and language proficiency requires extensive engagement over a prolonged period of time. This means that sustained effort is essential, with frequent and regular lessons, appropriate time allocations, and with schools working together to improve continuity across the levels of schooling. Learners who begin languages study in preschool and the early years of schooling, and those who bring with them knowledge of other languages, are provided with a strong foundation for future languages learning.

Effective languages programs require whole school support, particularly from school leaders. The involvement of community members, as well as collaboration between languages teachers and colleagues in other key learning areas, influences the extent to which languages are valued as an integral part of the mainstream curriculum.

All languages are equally valid. Learners gain similar social, cognitive, linguistic and cultural benefits, regardless of the language studied. Decisions made by individual jurisdictions and schools regarding the languages to be offered and supported, need to take local contexts into account. Other important factors to consider are availability of teachers and resources, learner background, and continuity of languages learning, especially at transition points in schooling.

Mainstream schools alone cannot provide the entire range of languages that learners may wish to study. Providing a wide range of languages is achieved through:

  • collaboration among mainstream schools, distance education providers and government schools of languages
  • in the case of Australian Indigenous Languages, schools working in partnership with Indigenous Communities
  • after hours ethnic/community languages schooling.

Australian Indigenous Languages have a unique place in Australia’s heritage and in its cultural and educational life. For Indigenous learners, they are fundamental to strengthening identity and self-esteem.

For non-Indigenous learners, they provide a focus for development of cultural understanding and reconciliation. The choice of which Australian Indigenous Language should be offered requires careful negotiation with Indigenous people. It also requires recognition of protocols related to language ownership, language maintenance and revival, and acknowledgement of the cultural connections and contexts of languages within Australian Indigenous communities.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Educational planning
Education policy
Curriculum planning
Social life and customs
Teaching and learning
Languages other than English (LOTE)
Language and languages
Aboriginal students
Aboriginal peoples