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Repairing languages education

By Phillip Mahnken - posted Friday, 16 May 2008

You ask: What's the point of language teaching? Is it just economic, or are the biggest benefits intrinsic? What languages should be taught, how should we determine priorities?

We need to do so much to repair languages education in this country, it is puzzling to know where to begin, what to prioritise.

If we start from lower primary school (again) and do not let it fizzle along the way (again), we could create a thorough, sequenced and effective system, priming students in school and refining them at universities as the 1994 Rudd Report recommended. That would have no effect on the tertiary system until 2020, no effect on the society and economy until 2024 or so.


We cannot wait that long nor can we wash our hands of all those already past infant school. Besides, we know that students can start languages at any age and make great gains if their motivation and the quality of the curriculum and teaching match their needs. Plenty of Australians in recent decades have begun a language from scratch at university and gone on to attain advanced, even professional proficiency. But that is more demanding and stressful than it need be than if students brought with them a sound school grounding in their languages.

Ideally, Australia will aim high like many EU countries. "Swedish is the official language but most Swedes speak quite good English," states a little book a friend brought back recently. "The younger generation sometimes speak a third language such as German or French." Sweden has 9 million people of whom half a million are foreign citizens and "1.1 million have foreign roots," it informs me. So, like Australia it is a multicultural country, dependent on trade, industry and an educated workforce, proud of its freedom of worship, ingrained democratic traditions and the achievements of women at all levels. Like Australia, Sweden is both spacious (50,000 square meters per citizen, it boasts) and urbanised.

Ideally, here in Australia we will immediately instigate the following:

  • A national campaign to convince Australians of the value of languages competence, making use of existing TV, radio and print outlets and community organisations and government agencies. We must also commission new media programs and publications that put language success stories, bilingual role models like Megan Gale, Princess Mary, Ted Egan, James Bradfield Moody, Kevin Rudd, Jana Rawlinson, Major Michael Stone, Ada Nicodemou (and so many others) constantly in the public eye.
    Research is required to involve young people and count their views on languages and on effective marketing of them. I am working on a proposal to ABC or SBS television for a catchy series and also using young artists to help with a comic book.
  • A nationwide program to lift the morale and guarantee the competence and sound pedagogy of in-service and pre-service teachers. There are people of goodwill and great professional competence in universities, professional associations, community schools of languages, education departments, all of whom could co-ordinate this program and set its standards.
    Teachers must be recognised and rewarded for extra effort. Online courses leading to qualifications, in-country scholarships, sabbatical study and promotion for excellent teachers, acknowledgement from government figures at MLTA events - these are ways to give back to language teachers the professional endorsement and pat on the back they have lacked for a decade.
  • School principals and administrations need to be both wooed and directed to support languages studies at every opportunity, in school publications, at school events and in the media.
    Scholarships for school principals and VP's to attend short, intensive, in-country courses in the language(s) taught at their school will be an incentive and have a multiplier effect. Australian society and education cannot become like Sweden or Finland if educational leaders are apathetic or hostile to languages education. They themselves, sad to say, need to be the targets of a PR campaign. Their positive leadership is indispensable as is that of political leaders, policy shapers and the bureaucracies.

It seems at once cynical and naïve to suggest that bureaucrats should facilitate, not obfuscate and drown the aspirations of languages educators and their communities in the verbiage of endlessly recycled policy and management regulations ("policy, planning and budgets").

Much work on language curricula has gone on over many decades. Proficiency standards for different levels can be established for all languages prioritised in Australia. The ALL Guidelines made a world-leading attempt at this in 1988 with wide benefit, but if anything was somewhat too democratic and devolved, requiring effort on the part of teachers they were unable to make.


A recommended core curriculum for all languages is not out of the question nor should it suppress individual teacher creativity. Already, vast amounts of resources are available in print, produced commercially, free on the Internet including on special languages websites, and created by teachers themselves.

If parents get behind - no, better still, get beside - their children in their language learning, they will do better. Teachers cannot succeed in anything that parents actively oppose or do not care about. We are emerging from an era when Australians were encouraged to regard almost anybody not born here and speaking “Strine” as a threat. It will take some time to undo the damage of unleashed xenophobia. It will take time to bring out again that pride in tolerance and relaxed openness to the world we became known for. We were never known for taking that ultimate step of reaching out to the different mental worlds, beliefs and life practices of others that foreign language learning bestows. Can we have another go now? We know we have the solid commitment of the Parents Associations, ACSSO and APA (see their website and finally, the federal government.

And why? It is never just economic benefits that languages study brings. It is being able to get inside other cultures, know what makes other - very different - people tick; communicate with them; grow into something new and richer yourself; understand language itself better, English and other languages; enjoy the film, literature, music and all the ephemeral language products and experiences of other cultures.

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About the Author

Dr Phillip Mahnken is Coordinator of Languages at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. He has set up a blog for the International Year of Languages - Australia here.

Related Links
International Year of Languages - Australia

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

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