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Languages: our primary failing

By Matthew Absalom - posted Friday, 30 May 2008


My 14-year-old daughter said to me yesterday, talking about her current school language learning experience: “He’s taught me more French in one term than the amount of Chinese I learnt at my old school in three years.”

I was both excited and pained at this as it illustrates two things which are emblematic of many children’s experiences of languages in school. First, she is aware of some notion of progress that she has found in her early high school languages experience and which was lacking in her primary/middle languages experience (arguably, rigour and expectations). Second, I’m dismayed that in three-plus years of primary/middle school language education my daughter has come away with next to no language - oh, she can say hamburger in Chinese, which is odd since she’s vegetarian. This begs the question why such a disparity between primary and secondary languages.

If we start with some statistics we find that in 2007 Australian 9-11 year-olds spent a meagre 1 per cent of school instruction time on modern languages (OECD Education at a Glance 2007). This was the lowest percentage for the OECD countries listed. Luxembourg rated the highest percentage (21 per cent), with many other countries dedicating more than 10 per cent to modern languages (13 per cent - Czech Republic and Spain; 12 per cent - Sweden; 11 per cent - Israel, Portugal and Slovenia; 10 per cent - France, Germany and Greece).

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The OECD average is 7 per cent and the EU19 average is 9 per cent. Notably, the other predominantly anglophone countries represented either had no data (England), data that weren’t relevant (New Zealand and Scotland) or unavailable data (United States). Clearly, my daughter had no chance of getting far with languages occupying 1 per cent of instructional time.

Another stunning fact that the OECD Education at a Glance data for 2007 revealed was that Australia dedicates 41 per cent of instructional time (for 9-11 year-olds) to the compulsory core curriculum while the OECD average is 92 per cent. In Australia the majority of children’s time is spent on “compulsory flexible curriculum”. Whatever this “compulsory flexible curriculum” may be, it seems clear that this is causing the oft-invoked crowding of the primary curriculum (viz. the Australian Primary Principals’ Association Charter on Primary Schooling).

These data clearly show that our performance in languages in (upper) primary school is appalling but, more significantly, that the core curriculum in primary school is overshadowed by other activities.

Joe Lo Bianco’s article in this feature pointed to a study in the US which links successful completion of university degrees in the minimum time to schooling characterised as having “rigorous” curriculum. The definition of a rigorous curriculum always included continuous high-level language study. These OECD data suggest that Australian schooling in the upper primary years is a far cry from the rigorous curriculum required for later educational success. For languages this is patently obvious with only 13 per cent of students progressing through school to languages at year 12.

How have our primary schools gotten into such a state? And why are primary languages programs so unsuccessful?

The issue of rigour is closely related to the notion of expectations as eloquently put by Karen Woodman. I want to build on this idea and suggest that expectations of language learning in primary education are skewed towards a perspective which holds no respect for small children as language users and which inappropriately applies an adult language learning framework to children’s language learning.

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Here are some uncontroversial facts:

  • the majority of children learn a language in the first five years of their lives;
  • they learn this language with very little error correction and often very little explicit instruction;
  • by the age of five they have a basically intact adult grammar (obviously the same cannot be said of lexicon); and
  • some children simultaneously acquire more than one language in this period without evident cognitive disruptions.

Joe Lo Bianco notes that many children starting school in Australia have to un-learn languages and then re-learn a “foreign” language. Not only is this the case, but the approach to teaching these “foreign” languages ignores the fact that young children are already expert linguists, have already internalised the complexity and messiness of one or more human languages (for this reason, I strongly oppose the generalisation of artificial languages like Esperanto) and are not weighed down with all of the psychological issues that obstruct adult language learning.

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About the Author

Matthew Absalom lectures in the Italian Studies program at The University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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