Making the most of languages resources
The recent Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has put school languages study under the spotlight again, with its call to give all Australian students the opportunity to study an Asian language throughout their schooling. However, the White Paper should be seen in context: it is the most recent of 70 language policies, reviews and reports published over the past 40 years (Lo Bianco & Slaughter, 2009), and in that time the numbers of students taking languages for year 12 has dropped from 40 per cent to around 12 per cent across Australia. The previous push for languages under the NALSAS strategy, with a target of 60 per cent of year 10 students taking an Asian language by 2006, produced very modest results, despite the injection of $200 million between 1996 and 2002.
Why is there such a gap between government policy and reality? Some researchers have argued that current policy on languages study is too narrowly focused on its benefits for the economy and trade, a rationale that has not persuaded students to study languages (Slaughter, 2007). Elsewhere it has been argued that students in Australia feel little need to study languages since English is seen as 'the' international language.
Others again have attributed the lack of interest in language study to the 'top-down' nature of policies and programs, which have not allowed sufficiently for local needs and resources. Australia is one of the most multilingual countries in the world, yet there has been remarkably little attention given to how school education might draw on these resources.
The Group of Eight, representing key universities, has argued that 'if Australia discovered untapped oil and gas reserves it would be considered foolish to ignore them yet the government continues to ignore its language resources' (2007, p6). It noted that approximately 16 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English.
Building and expanding upon these existing linguistic skills makes economic and pedagogical sense. A student with some native-speaking skills is likely to achieve deeper linguistic and cultural skills than a student who has no prior knowledge or experience with a language. It also acknowledges the intrinsic value and interest of Australia's many cultural heritages.
These language skills, most of which are brought with immigrants when they arrive in Australia, are currently being wasted. Many important community languages are disappearing from our schools and universities, which means young Australians do not have the opportunity to keep or improve their language skills through formal study. Group of Eight (2007, p6)
A group of researchers from three universities, in conjunction with education systems and communities, is looking at this issue through some preliminary investigations on how language-education initiatives might be based on local language resources. They are also looking at the pattern of existing programs and how future programs may meet particular local needs. The research is being conducted through the ARC project, Maximising Australia's Language Provisions: Exploring and Developing Language Resources Across Sectors, Schools and Communities. The project is being undertaken with the support of the NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC), the Catholic Education Office Sydney and the Community Relations Commission of NSW as partners, and involves researchers from Sydney University, Wollongong University and University of Technology Sydney.
Last year the researchers analysed results from an online survey of school staff across sectors in the Sydney region, with just over 10 per cent of principals, school executives, teachers and support staff responding (n = 1,260). Just under 50 per cent of school staff have skills in different languages. When researchers examined non-languages teachers, they found that around 42 per cent of staff had a language in addition to English (n = 449). The main languages were French (32.1 per cent), Italian (20.4 per cent), Asian languages (16.1 per cent) and German (14.4 per cent). Over three quarters of these non-languages teachers reported speaking the language very well or reasonably well. Even though these percentages may be skewed by having school staff interested in languages responding to the survey, the results are still remarkable. Just under 35 per cent of staff in the survey had studied languages at tertiary level.
'Resources' means not only the languages spoken in schools and communities, but also teachers' languages skills and their attitudes to the study of languages. In this context, the survey showed high staff interest in gaining languages skills. The main choices were French (36.4 per cent), Italian (36.3 per cent), Chinese (34.3 per cent), Spanish (31.3 per cent) and Japanese (13.7 per cent). The presence of Chinese and Spanish is interesting; presumably it relates to geographic proximity and opportunities for travel and also perhaps cultural capital.
The participants' attitudes to the study of languages also challenge many myths. Ninety per cent of school staff felt that students should study a language other than English at school. The main reasons they gave for this related not to economic benefits or job prospects, but rather to the acquisition of intercultural skills, being global citizens, understanding and tolerance (57 per cent) and developing cognitive skills and metalinguistic awareness (29 per cent).
Teachers were more likely to have positive attitudes to languages study when they had learned languages themselves through study or home and family, or when they were teaching in schools with high numbers of bilingual students.
Last year the project mapped the existing provision of school languages programs in the Sydney region and around Wollongong in government and non-government schools covering years K–12. Now being analysed, the data is showing that languages programs are concentrated in certain schools and areas. Some languages are strong in independent schools (French K–12 and German, Japanese and Latin in secondary); Chinese and Italian are strong in government primary schools but Japanese and French are the main languages in years 7–12: languages programs exist in oases with many deserts in between.
The research team is presently gathering additional information on school programs and completing the online survey in Wollongong, to add to the representativeness of these findings.
The third stage of the project has now started. It will include ethnographic case studies in government, Catholic, independent and community languages schools, with the aim of identifying factors that contribute to or detract from the effectiveness of language programs. Researchers will be talking with school staff, interviewing students and parents, and observing classes in about 20 primary and secondary schools.
The final stage of the project will consist of the development of 'profiles' in a range of languages and the alignment of these with curriculum and syllabus documents. The project is drawing on developments in Britain and Europe, such as the Passport for Languages and the Common European Framework. The idea is that with proficiency frameworks and assessment for a range of languages, learners can be credited for their language study no matter where they are studying.
Although the study is still to be completed, findings to date confirm the need to collect information on, and take into account, local needs and resources. Such an approach would differ from the Asian Century policy, but would align with ACARA's languages curriculum. There would be targets by state and region which build on existing resources and languages. There is a reserve of positive attitudes towards languages study in schools, but these will count for nothing unless there is a range of continuing support structures and incentives for languages study in primary and secondary schools.
Group of Eight (2007). Languages in Crisis: A Rescue Plan for Australia, Manuka, ACT, Group of Eight: Australia's Leading Universities.
Lo Bianco, J. & Slaughter, Y. (2009). Second Languages and Australian Schooling. ACER: Victoria.
Slaughter, Y. (2007). The Rise and Fall of Indonesian in Australian Schools: Implications for Language Policy and Planning, Asian Studies Review, 31, 3, 301–322.
Subject HeadingsEducational evaluation
Teaching and learning
School and community
Language and languages