The Leader of the Opposition's proposal to have 40% of Year 12 students learning a foreign language within a decade is seriously intelligent policy. Earlier this year, the rather unexpected appearance of this plan in Tony Abbott's reply to the 2012 Budget attracted some derision, but the many challenges facing Australia in this century demand sophisticated solutions accompanied by plenty of hard yakka. This would be a real education revolution.
Such a strategy would finally allow Australia to identify as a modern nation with an intellectual, international and practical commitment to the future of its children. It would be a practical manifestation of the ambitious claims made in the Australian Curriculum, a document that purports to 'equip young Australians with the skills, knowledge and understanding that will enable them to engage effectively with and prosper in a globalised world… [to] gain personal and social benefits, be better equipped to make sense of the world in which they live and make an important contribution to building the social, intellectual and creative capital of our nation.'
There are implications for international relations, national security, community planning and individual creativity and opportunity.
Most importantly, Mr Abbott's announcement should be considered in light of the Prime Minister's stated ambition to raise Australian educational standards, with particular emphasis on her desire to match or exceed the outcomes of the highest-performing Asian and European countries.
It is ironic that in a climate of such concern about declining standards and falling scores in international testing, the critical connection between high-quality, long term foreign language programs and improvements in the learners' general cognitive functioning is still not made. The irony lies most clearly in the fact that Finland is currently held up as the archetypal educational success story. Such discussions fail to acknowledge that, as researcher Irina Buchberger has explained, 'this has been a reality in the Finnish education system since the early seventies – multilingual Finnish citizens competent in four languages [including English].' In Finland, language competence is 'a key element in the personal and professional development of individuals.'
The serious study of a second or subsequent language is about learning to be increasingly literate. For many Australian students, enrolment in a rigorous foreign language program is the only time that they will learn about English. They become aware of how languages work as systems, with rules and conventions and exceptions, and that this knowledge can be applied in useful ways in many contexts, just as happens in mathematics, computing, music and other subject areas.
Conversely, the absence of a nationally coordinated commitment to foreign language teaching means that Australian children are at a major disadvantage in testing regimes that contain a stand-alone test of grammar and punctuation, such as NAPLAN.
One of the longstanding proponents of foreign language education, the University of Melbourne's Professor Joe Lo Bianco, has written that 'In developed countries like Australia conscious and deliberate language planning seems only to occur in response to social or economic problems which derive from language questions, or which have a strong language dimension.' To this analysis can be added the fact that Australia continues to underperform in this area of education largely because it has taken its pedagogical lead from other Western, English-speaking countries where foreign language teaching has been equally ineffective.
What can be done?
Mr Abbott's goals for Australia's linguistic future can be achieved only with the express support of state leaders, who must mandate the study of at least one language other than English for all students from Year 4/5 to Year 10. A core group of five or six languages (e.g. Mandarin, Indonesian, French, Italian and Arabic) must be made available across Australia, with careful synchronisation and cooperation across sectors, levels and jurisdictions.
Teacher unions will need to adopt a flexible attitude, including embracing teacher quality and curriculum priorities as part of their contribution to productivity and the achievement of national goals. As part of the discussion about rewarding the best teachers, the acquisition of language teaching skills and qualifications should contribute to professional assessment and salary increments.
As is the case in some quarters already, bonus marks should be allocated to students who achieve well in Year 12 foreign language courses. Students who pursue language studies at tertiary level should be rewarded with refunds of semesterly fees.
Thousands of Australians are bilingual and multilingual. This great southern melting pot is a vast repository of speakers of other languages whose skills have gone largely untapped. They include teachers of a range of subjects who also speak other languages and may be amenable to retraining, skilled immigrants, professionals and retirees who would welcome new challenges, and young people whose multicultural backgrounds make them authentic, enthusiastic messengers. As Professor Joe Lo Bianco has suggested, many of these would be well placed 'to conserve and develop the latent bilingual capabilities existing in the population and to generate new language knowledge among English-only speakers through formal education.' Given Australia's poor record in languages education, this is the time to recruit, train and support specialists who can play a key role in achieving national goals.
It is time to stop paying lip service to notions of preparing our students for a future in a globalised world.