Children in 40 preschools around the country will next year be taught a second language as part of a trial aimed at boosting language studies. But with the number of students taking up languages at a staggering low, does it go far enough?
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1 Dec 2014 - 1:25 PM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2014 - 1:45 PM

Sydney teenager Ludia Kim is struggling to learn French.

But it's not her ability to learn that’s holding her back, it's her age.

French is Ludia’s fourth language. The other three – Korean, English and German – she started at preschool.

"English and German were compulsory," she says. "So from such a young age, I had these two languages with me and I’m really fluent now. Whereas with French, which I started in high school, I struggle to be fluent."

She supports compulsory language studies because she says it's much easier to pick up a second language when you're a child.

The government last month announced a new trial that will give children in 40 preschools around the country the same early start that Ludia had.

Under the $9.8 million trial, children will be taught one of five languages – Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian, Arabic or French – using games and interactive apps.

The trial is part of a wider push by the government to promote languages in schools, after it was found that the number of Year 12 students studying a second language had dropped from 40 per cent in the 1960s to only 12 per cent today.

But does the government action go far enough?

Advocates such as Kathleen Kirby of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) say no. Australian students, Kirby says, are falling behind the rest of the world in their knowledge of languages, and learning a second language should be compulsory for all Australian students.

Plummeting rates 

Victoria is the only state committed to compulsory language education, with a goal of having compulsory languages learning for all students in government schools, prep to Year 10, by 2025.

While most other states have compulsory languages at specific year levels, none have them after Year 8, meaning most students give up studying early.

In Western Australia, more than a quarter of the state’s public primary schools don't offer foreign languages, even though all of them did four years ago. 

Ms Kirby says the numbers are concerning.

"Less than 13 per cent of our students who are choosing to study a language right up to Year 12," she says.

"That's a very low percentage compared to many other economically developed countries where the majority of students are exiting schooling with two, or even three, languages."

Listen to the full interview with Kathleen Kirby:

A 2009 report by the Australian Council for Educational Research said governments were responsible.

"Australia has an impressive record of policy development and program innovation in second language education, but a relatively poor record for consistency of application and maintenance of effort," the report said.

"A large number of reports, enquiries, official policies and implementation programs is testimony to a lively concern for improvement, unfortunately undermined by lack of consensus about priorities and failure to devise an enduring rationale for what is ultimately needed: high standard, articulated, compulsory language education."

It also noted that English-speaking countries like Australia  were typically the worst offenders.

"The countries in which compulsory language learning is least well established are English-speaking countries in which only one language is used for official purposes. It is also in these countries that concern for participation in language learning is most commonly expressed."


At a glance: Language studies around the world

  • United States: Language studies are compulsory in 40 states for at least two years at secondary level. 
  • England: Language studies are compulsory for students from 7-14 years.
  • Scotland: Language studies are compulsory in the last two years of primary and first four of secondary. 
  • France: Study of at least one foreign language is compulsary at secondary for three hours per week.
  • Japan: Language studies are compulsory at both junior and senior high school.
  • China and the Republic of Korea: Learning English is compulsory at primary and secondary levels.

(Source: Asia Education Foundation, University of Melbourne)


What languages should we invest in?

There are six languages predominantly taught in Australian schools, with Japanese the most popular, followed by Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Mandarin. 

The glaring omission is any Indigenous Aboriginal language, of which there are hundreds.

Neil Broad, of the Australian Society for Indigenous languages (AUSL), says more emphasis should be placed on teaching Indigenous languages. 

"My experience is that teaching an Australian indigenous language in an English-speaking school gives students a greater appreciation not simply of the language itself but also of the culture and of the people who speak that language."

He says the sheer number of languages posed some difficulty, but that could partly be solved by geography.

"If you’re geographically located in an area where the language is spoken then that’s an easy choice to make but if you’re talking about a language program in Sydney then that's a different kind of question."

He says governments have a dual responsibility to encourage Indigenous language learning in non-Indigenous communities and to allow children whose first language is an Indigenous one to learn in it.

"I am deeply disappointed in the Northern Territory government's approach to the use of Indigenous languages in schools," he says.

"You've got a large number of schools and Aboriginal communities where kids turn up to first day of school with very little English, and there's overwhelming evidence from around the world that people learn best if they are taught in the language they speak as their natural language."

What's the point?

Many people learn a language as a child only to forget it as an adult, so is there point in putting emphasis on boosting language studies only for students to forget it all down the track?

Kathleen Kirby argues the benefits of language studies go beyond being able to speak another language.

"Young people who have the opportunity to learn languages will not only be able to communicate better with people across the world, they have deeper inter cultural understanding and cultural intelligence," she said.

Research from the Victorian government also suggests that learning another language helps boost children's literacy skills and comprehension of English.

Neil Broad argues that a motivation for Australians should be around understanding the country's history and preserving Indigenous languages, many of which are dying out.

"Language is not simply about earning about grammar and vocabulary and a sound system, it’s also about gaining an appreciation for the cultural context in which that language is spoken and where it belongs," he says.

Starting young

Seventeen-year-old Ludia Kim, who has attended the German International School Sydney since prep, says she supports the idea of compulsory language learning in schools.

"In our generation it’s important that everyone speaks at least one or two other languages because Australia is now such a multicultural country," she says.

She says being in a situation where you can’t speak the language is an isolating experience.

"When I was in kindergarten I found it difficult to communicate with the people surrounding me," she says.

"I wanted to talk to people but I was kind of left alone because I couldn’t speak English."

One thing everyone agrees on is that it is much easier to learn a second language when you‘re a child.

"Young people's brains are absolutely wired for language learning and it’s a real advantage and an optimum time to start children learning a second language as young as preschool age," Kathleen Kirby says.

"I think this is a real challenge for Australia."

Data compiled by Jason Thomas.