Saving Languages in our Schools

Recent history is replete with grand government announcements about language study in Australian schools. In a world where global perspectives and opportunities have never been more apparent we should be seeing a surge in language study. Instead, the study of foreign languages is in decline.

The fact that student interest is declining is indicative of a wider community apathy towards the study of foreign languages. There are several factors at work here and some are beyond the capacity of governments and schools to influence in the short term. But there are a few things that would make a difference.

For a start, we need to stop pretending that offering a smorgasbord of foreign languages will work. It’s difficult for a government, a community or a school to adequately support the promotion and delivery of courses in many different languages. It dilutes strategic intent, resources and focus. If the government doesn’t have the courage to scrap some languages it should prioritise a small number and resource them to the hilt.

We need schools in close geographic proximity to collaborate. There should be a link between the language programs of local primary schools and secondary schools. It’s common for a local secondary school to find that students coming from their neighbourhood primary schools have been studying several different languages. There is no alignment, no planning, no sharing of staff expertise, no teacher network and therefore no hope of a quality program.

The rationale for choice of language within a school needs a closer look. In many cases the reason a school studies [pick a language] is that ‘we’ve always done that’. In other words, the decision of which language to study is determined by the availability of teachers and the opinions of teachers. A school that found a good teacher of [pick a language] in 1983 may still be teaching that language today simply because that teacher happened to be available at that time. This creates a certain degree of inertia. Which teacher of [pick a language] is going to stand up and say that they think it would be better for their school to be studying another language? Language teachers are passionate about the value of their chosen language. Whether that is the most appropriate language for their students in 2014 doesn’t always enter the equation.

One of the great risks for schools and language teachers is working in isolation. Without a supportive collegial and professional network language teachers cannot survive and thrive. And if a school has access to just one teacher their program is at risk if the teacher leaves. By collaborating in their choice of language schools can create networks of language teachers to help address both of these issues. Another useful strategy is for schools of moderate to large size to employ language teachers who have a strong second teaching method, which provides collegial support and a safeguard against the loss of the one and only teacher capable of teaching [pick a language] in the school. Imagine the benefits of having a group of language teachers in a school.

The quality of teaching can improve. In primary schools, it needs to be good enough that students want to continue with study as they move into secondary school, which too often isn’t the case. In secondary schools it needs to be rigorous yet engaging enough to keep students involved past Year 8 and 9 where the majority of students drop their language study.

A quality program at secondary school level would include at least one opportunity to experience the culture and language first hand. Here Asian languages probably have a geographic and cost advantage. Take Year 8 students studying Chinese, for example, to China for a cultural experience and take them back two years later for some intensive language study.

Cost is an impediment not just for schools but for government. But without some level of investment and subsidy for staffing and student activity I doubt we’ll see substantial growth in student numbers. There is a good deal of support for professional development available but the funding needs to extend further.

Teacher availability is a big issue of course, particularly in smaller schools and in some geographic locations. The sources can only be native speakers or students who have come through our own education system. Since the latter are in short supply we need to make it easier for schools to employ foreign nationals. At present getting someone through Australia’s immigration department to support a school language program can be slow and very difficult. Let’s see government remove some of those barriers.

Even with the best of intentions we won’t find a quality teacher for all schools. Technology can help. If the government was serious it would invest in the creation of a rigorous and engaging asynchronous language course in a small number of languages and support the delivery of these courses into schools needing this support. Schools need whole courses, not individual learning objects.

An incentive exists for students to study languages in upper secondary education in the form of an ATAR bonus. But there are also disincentives, particularly for students of English speaking background competing in the same subject against students who have a cultural background in the language in question. Ways must be found to address this issue.

Lessons might also be learned from the small number of successful bilingual programs operating in primary schools.

So while there may be no easy single solution, there are practical things government and schools can do to help. Efforts to date have been well intentioned but ineffective. As an old friend if mine was wont to say, ‘ambition should be made of sterner stuff’. Time for some courage and some investment.

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