• Our kids are not learning a second language because of systemic disincentives. ((Dusan Manic/Getty Images))
SPECIAL REPORT: Australia is losing the riches of its many languages. Even school children from immigrant families are abandoning the study of their mother tongues. In the nation’s most multicultural state, researchers claim students are being “punished” with the scaling down of their HSC marks.
By
Rick Feneley and Julia Calixto

5 Dec 2016 - 5:24 PM  UPDATED 6 Dec 2016 - 11:56 AM

“It’s come to this,” says Dr Ken Cruickshank. “We’re sending kids to school with two languages but they’re coming out with one.”

Almost 30 years after a national policy resolved that every Australian child should learn a second language, the associate professor of education at the University of Sydney is describing the grand failure of that vision for multicultural Australia.

Cruickshank and colleagues from Wollongong University and UTS have conducted a five-year study that charts the alarming decline of education in fostering one of the nation’s greatest resources – its many languages – and particularly in its most multicultural state, NSW.

In 1992 in NSW, 42 per cent of students from a Greek background studied their language for the Higher School Certificate. By 2011, only 7 per cent took Greek for the HSC. In the same period, Arabic study has plummeted from 21.7 per cent to 9 per cent of students of Arabic background.

And as Australia embarks on the so-called Asian Century, only one in six NSW students who start school as bilingual will further develop their language skills.

Just 8 per cent of the state’s students study a language for their Higher School certificate, less than half the result achieved by Victoria.

Cruickshank and other educators warn that students of Asian, Arabic and some European backgrounds – often from less well-off families – are dropping their birth languages because they are “punished” when it comes to the scaling of their HSC marks for university entrance ranking.

“They come to school with fluency in at least two languages,” Cruickshank says. “The school system is making them monolingual.”

It is a problem beyond NSW. Only this month the federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, while announcing extra language funding for pre-school children, noted that the proportion of the nation's final-year students studying another language had dropped from 40 per cent in the 1960s to just under 12 per cent today.

In this special report, SBS examines the collapse of Australia’s multi-lingual ambitions. Our investigation has found:

• An 80 per cent HSC mark in the traditional language subjects such as French and German will be shaved by only a few points once it is scaled for the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank. But students of immigrant backgrounds who achieve 80 per cent in their own languages – such as Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Arabic and Vietnamese – can see it slashed to 25 out of 50 or less once it is translated to their ATAR.

• It is a complicated and sensitive debate. Education authorities reject the notion that scaling is punitive. The same scaling algorithm is applied to all students in all HSC subjects, and even critics agree it is an attempt to be fair. But they say the system creates wild anomalies and effectively penalises students from non-English backgrounds – and especially from less well-off families –and fails to give due credit to their proficiency in the languages of their roots.

• Students confirm they are voting with their feet. There is 20-year-old Lisa Hu, a third-year medicine student at University of NSW. Australian-born, she spoke Mandarin and her grandparents' dialect from a young age, but the ATAR effect played a part in her decision to dump Chinese for the HSC. “If I had chosen Heritage Mandarin, that would have put a risk on my mark, and I might not have been doing medicine like I am today.” 

• At St Benedict College, a Catholic girls’ school at Pennant Hills, we meet girls whose first language is English, and who describe crying with their teacher when they decided they had little choice but to drop Japanese for the HSC – because it could not deliver them the ATAR they required.

• At the same school, the head of languages, Belinda Jack, having taught German and Indonesian for three decades, laments: “I’ve noticed a substantial drop across those 30 years. At the HSC every year there are less and less students doing languages.”

All this saddens Maxim Adams, the 2016 head boy, or school captain, at Sydney’s International Grammar School.
“It means that basically people are starting to choose subjects for how well they can do, or what ATAR they can get, rather than for the sake of learning,” Maxim tells SBS.

He has just completed his HSC, having topped the state in Ukrainian, his mother’s language, and Italian. Maxim also studied Chinese. And, oh yes, maths and science and English. All up, it came to 17 units when only the best 10 will count for his final mark.

“I mean, if you wanted to do it the quickest way, you’d pick 10 units and you’d get it over and done with and you’d pick things purely relevant to university. But you’d be missing out on a lot of the fun of doing school – and actually learning for the sake of it, and getting not just a mark but an education.”

Maxim can discuss the science; evidence that studying a language opens neural pathways, expands the mind.

“Learning languages kind of teaches you how to learn because you have to structure yourself. There’s no easy way other than just practising and putting in all the effort.”

At IGS, the language teachers, too, put in a mountain of effort. It is policy. Studying a second language is compulsory from pre-school to year 10 at this independent school.

It is a policy that is not afforded to students at less well-off schools in NSW, but Victoria is making that commitment. By 2025, every child in Victoria will learn a second language between foundation and year 10, and teachers expect many of them will continue to years 11 and 12.

“We’ve got it ready-made here and we’re wasting it.”

Language study is available to about 30 per cent of NSW primary school students, although it varies wildly by region – from 10 per cent in government schools in Wollongong to 85 per cent in Sydney independent schools.

Studying a language becomes mandatory for 100 hours in years 7 and 8 in NSW. However, that is followed by a mass drop-out in year 9 – it fell to 18 per cent in 2011 – when languages are offered as an elective.

And yet NSW has more children born into another language than any other state in one of the most multilingual nations on the planet, where almost 250 languages are spoken in homes. Almost 40 per cent of NSW's population is from a non-English background.

“We’ve got it ready-made here and we’re wasting it,” says Stepan Kerkyasharian, former president of NSW’s Anti-Discrimination Board and its Community Relations Commission. 

When Kerkyasharian landed in Australia in the late 1960s, 44 per cent of matriculating students in NSW had studied a language other than English, even if they were mostly limited to French, German and Latin.

He says we are squandering one of the greatest assets gifted to the nation by decades of post-war immigration. Not only are we failing in the promise to give all mono-lingual children of English-speaking background a second language; we are taking children from multilingual families and making them monolingual.

“We are deliberately, through public policy, saying to students, ‘We don’t value that. We’re going to penalise you.’”

Lofty goals 

In his office in Sydney University’s education faculty, Ken Cruickshank is animated. He quotes from a vice-chancellors' report from the Group of Eight leading universities: "If Australia discovered untapped oil and gas reserves, it would be considered foolish to ignore them. Yet Australia does ignore its language resources."

“We’ve got to the stage," Cruickshank says, "where languages are in terminal decline. Today, young Australians spend less time studying languages than their counterparts in any other OECD country. 

“It's the norm in Europe for students to study two languages. In Australia, hardly anyone does. In the US and the UK, half of their students do languages for their final year of schooling. In Australia, it’s now under 12 per cent."

In 2014, the then federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, declared a target of 40 per cent of Year 12 students studying a second language within a decade. 

Contemplating that lofty goal, Cruickshank trots out more grim statistics:

• Only one in 20 students from a mono-lingual English background gains any level of fluency in a second language.

• Less than 2 per cent of young Australians study more than one other language.

“Only one in six students who come to school with two languages is able to continue to develop their language," Cruickshank says. "This is really criminal.”

He remembers better days. The 1987 national policy on languages recommended that all students should have a language other than English.

“Community languages like Greek and Italian came into the school system in the 1980s and 90s,” he recalls. “It was wonderful. We know that the numbers of students studying those languages in those years increased by something like 500 per cent.”

Students from poorer immigrant families could rely on their strength in community languages to boost their overall mark, and so use it as a pathway into university.

“Kids got to university on the basis of studying their community language – because it was credited to help them get into university,” Cruickshank says. “Now they avoid their first language so they can get into university.

“Something like 60 per cent of the kids in Background Chinese score under 25 out of 50 in their scaled mark and that’s why their numbers are plummeting.”

Cruickshank and his fellow researchers spoke to more than 100 secondary students and their parents as they surveyed 32 government, Catholic and independent schools and observed classes in Sydney and Wollongong.

The main reason given for taking or not taking a language was the ATAR.

Rot in the rank?

The Universities Admissions Centre’s report on the 2015 HSC reveals what can happen to a solid performance in a language course after it is scaled for the ATAR. A small sample:

• the average HSC score for Chinese Background Speakers of 43 out of 50 was knocked down to 23 for the ATAR;

• the Modern Greek average of 41 became an ATAR 25.2 out of 50;

• Turkish went from 42 to 24.6;

• Vietnamese from 39.1 to 26.6; and

• Korean from 40.6 to 24.2.

Students of languages typically taken at high-SES and independent schools fared much better after scaling.

• A classical Greek average mark of 45 became 41.1 for the ATAR;

• A French Continuers average of 41.3 became 35.9; and

• A German HSC mark of 40.3 was scaled to 33.9.

The scaling system confounds even experts. However, most agree with the Universities Admissions Centre, which administers the ATAR for NSW and Canberra, that the whole intention of scaling is to make the system fairer.

The idea, the UAC says, is to “level the playing field” so students taking courses at different levels – and in different combinations of subjects – can be compared and ranked fairly for university entry.

NSW offers about 30 languages and more than 60 different language courses for the HSC. Some have tiny participation – fewer than 50 students – so comparing them statistically with other courses has long been a challenge.

Until 1999-2000, languages stood apart from other HSC subjects for the purpose of tertiary-entrance ranking. French and German had provided the benchmark for scaling all other languages in the HSC. The same algorithm applied to all languages.

But as Professor Barry McGaw noted in his 1997 report on the future of the HSC, this raised concerns that it gave an advantage to students of a non-English background who were studying their family language for the HSC.

The state-wide cohort of French and German students, mostly from English-speaking backgrounds, on average performed highly across their HSC subjects. Their wider achievement was taken into account in calculating their score in French or German when it was scaled for their tertiary entrance rank. That is the way the ranking system works.

The students from non-English backgrounds were not, on average, scoring as highly across their subjects, and yet they were being credited as if they had when it came to scaling their community language mark.

“And it was felt that students from diverse language backgrounds were getting an unfair advantage because they already supposedly had some exposure to the language,” Cruickshank says.

Authorities worried it would discourage students with a monolingual background from taking up languages. The scaling system, as it affected languages, changed. 

“So from that time on,” says Cruickshank, “they started scaling the languages according to how these kids did in other subjects.”

"The system is really just absurd”

The same scaling algorithm now applied across all subjects, including languages. It meant that a candidate’s ATAR score for a language would be affected by the performance of their course’s entire cohort of students in other mass-candidature subjects, including English.

English, however, was the second language of many students in these cohorts.

“And if you came from an Arabic, Italian, Greek background,” says Cruickshank, “your marks in other subjects may not have been as good because you were going to less well-off schools."

The ATAR, he argues, has come to reflect socio-economic status. 

"We know that lower-SES kids do not do as well in the other subjects.”

Cruickshank and co acknowledge the change was an attempt at fairness, but they believe it was based on a false premise. The only way to be fair to these students, Cruickshank says, is to give some weighting to their strength in their family language; instead, the one-size-fits-all scaling model had the perverse effect of devaluing their proficiency in their language.

“All of the community languages tend to score much lower,” Cruickshank says. “Students are being somehow penalised for their language proficiency, not credited.

"Scaling 65 different courses separately in languages according to how students go in English is costly and cumbersome. Why not scale courses according to other languages units and so credit students' development in proficiency?"

The scaling system also creates odd anomalies, say Cruickshank and co in their study.

Students enrolled in Beginner Asian-language courses can gain higher ATAR scores for those subjects than candidates sitting the Background Speaker subjects. That is, candidates with no family link to the languages and who started year 11 with no more than 100 hours’ previous exposure to the subjects can receive more credit – for purposes of university rankings – than students who have been immersed in the languages their whole life.

• In 2015, an average Chinese Beginners HSC mark of 40.9 out of 50 became 26.4 once scaled for the ATAR.

• For Chinese Background Speakers, the average mark of 41 became just 23 after scaling.

Spanish Beginners, meanwhile, fell from an average 38.5 to 26 after scaling. But students in the much more difficult Spanish Continuers course – who typically had been studying the language since year 7 – watched the 38.3 average become a 24.9 score for the ATAR. 

It is illogical, the researchers say, that proficiency levels in these languages seem to “count for so little”.

“It’s just absurd,” says Cruickshank, “because it depends on how they do in other subjects, not how they’re doing in languages. The system is really just absurd.”

And it is the motivation for many to drop out, the researchers say. 

On a Friday afternoon in Sydney, school is out for most students. But five Australian-born young teenagers have arrived at a Greek Orthodox Community language school where, in their own time, they study their family language.

English is the first language for all five, but their grandparents speak little English. So language is family, they say.

“I’m proud to be Greek and I want to learn it,” declares year 9 student Jacqueline Kosmas.

“In year 7 there were 25 students in my Chinese class. And today in year 9 there’s roughly four or five girls in that class. It’s quite sad because most of them were Chinese and they didn’t choose that, and they preferred … other subjects rather than their own culture.”

Jacqueline is as determined as she can be that she will continue studying Greek for the HSC, but the ATAR will be a consideration.

It will be a bigger consideration for fellow language-school student Marcus Martsoukos, 14. If it becomes a choice between a higher ATAR and speaking better Greek, he says: “I’d probably focus more on the ATAR at the time, and hopefully later on I can learn more about the Greek language.”

What the education authorities say

The NSW Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards tells SBS there is “no such thing as ‘punitive scaling’”. 

In a detailed response, the Universities Admissions Centre says the scaling system is designed to ensure students “will not be advantaged or disadvantaged by any particular choice of courses”. A UAC spokeswoman says students  can be “assured that they will maximise their ATAR by studying those courses which are best aligned with their academic strengths and interests”.

“The methodology used ensures that courses that, in a particular year, are predominantly taken by students who do consistently well in all of their units are allocated marks that reflect the measured strength of that cohort, while courses that in a particular year taken by a group of students who generally perform at lower levels across their range of courses have scaled marks that reflect this lower academic standard.

“The method also ensures that students who excel in a course will receive an appropriately high-scaled score, even if the cohort of students in that course is not particularly strong.”

If a small course was to receive an influx of academically talented students, this would be reflected in higher scaled marks.

“The ATAR scaling does not attempt to correct for disadvantage suffered by any particular group,” the UAC spokeswoman says. “Universities take this into account at another point in their entry processes, through the use of special entry schemes and the awarding of bonus points.

“It is not surprising that a student who does very well in only one of their HSC courses will receive a low ATAR. That would be the case whether that one course was a language course or some other course.

“To achieve a high ATAR, you have to do well in all of the 10 units that count towards your ATAR. The units that are counted are your best scaled ones, so there is no disadvantage to the student if what seems [by the HSC mark] to be their strongest course is not counted. The ATARs that are awarded to students are the best possible ATARs for those students, given their results.”

You can read the full UAC response here, but the spokeswoman notes: “It is also not the purpose of ATAR scaling to encourage or discourage the study of any particular course. The purpose of the ATAR scaling is rather to ensure that there is no inherent advantage or disadvantage in any choice of course.”

Encouraging or discouraging students to study a language is a question for education leaders, policy makers and politicians.

Language education leader Frank Merlino is grateful that teachers, education bureaucrats and both major political parties are on the same page in Victoria, where 17.3 per cent of matriculating students at government schools have studied a language – twice as many as in NSW.

Merlino is principal of the state government-funded Victorian School of Languages, which provides classes to students who cannot get them at their regular school.

“When a new government was elected in Victoria a couple of years ago it decided to retain one of the language strategies of the previous government – so that by 2025, all students from foundation to year 10 would be studying a language,” Merlino says.

At any one time, 23 per cent of primary and high school students are studying a language in NSW compared with 75 per cent in Victoria, a study in 2005 found.

Victoria still has its challenges, though.

“I think the main obstacle will be finding sufficient qualified teachers,” says Merlino. “There is a shortage at the moment. Our universities are not producing enough language graduates and it’s very difficult to encourage teachers to come from overseas because they have to get used to our Australian education system. So it’s up to the universities and the governments.”

It is a problem identified by Cruickshank and co. At less well-off high schools, a solo language teacher will often be absorbed in the task of teaching the mandatory 100 hours to students in the junior years. Such schools often do not have the resources to offer languages as an elective from year 9.

“It’s a matter of equity,” says Cruickshank. “If you attend an independent or high-SES primary and secondary school, you have access to languages. If you’re attending a lower-SES government or Catholic school, you have little access to languages.

“In our study, we found a large pool of teachers in schools with language proficiency. But most teachers don’t want to use their language for teaching because of the status of language in schools. It’s just too hard a job.

“It’s very easy for the universities to start training language teaches again. Once the jobs are there, the teachers will be found.”

The NSW Government has announced it will build on the supply of quality languages teachers for primary schools with courses to be available from 2017 at selected NSW universities.

A spokesman for the state Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said work to boost the number of students studying languages started with a comprehensive review in 2014.

“The first action taken was to establish a high-level Ministerial Languages Advisory Panel. This panel, informed by leading languages academics, has senior leadership representation from the education sectors, the community and business sectors.

“Under the guidance of the panel the NSW Government is working towards practical and sustainable solutions that address the complex demand and supply issues of languages education.”

Governments and educational institutions can lead matters of supply and demand. In Britain, languages are mandatory between the ages of seven and 14. In the United States, a quarter of universities require continuous study of a language at school as a prerequisite for entry to university.

Starting them young

A November press release issued by the federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, announced - perhaps ambitiously - that “every Australian pre-schooler” would have the opportunity to learn a foreign language.

Birmingham made the point that 40 per cent of final-year students were studying another language in the 1960s while it was "just under 12 per cent today”.

Closer inspection of his statement revealed it was a commitment to spend an extra $5.9 million on a program that had so far cost $9.8 million and had reached 8540 pre-school children. They had learned Chinese, Japanese, French, Indonesian and Arabic – via computer apps.

More apps would be rolled out to teach pre-schoolers Italian and Spanish in 2017 and Hindi and Modern Greek in 2018.

Cruickshank and his colleagues support early intervention - particularly Victoria's compulsory language education in primary school - but they warn it will not lead to more students persisting with foreign languages beyond their early years unless the obstacles to studying in senior school are removed.

“Languages are just marginal in the curriculum,” Cruickshank says. “All the government reports have said that they're central, but there’s hardly any compulsory languages study in primary school or secondary school. They're seen as decoration.”

What the students say

At a Catholic high school in Sydney, three year 11 girls are describing a heartbreaking decision: dumping Japanese for the HSC.

“The teachers made it so exciting,” Hannah Chadwick recalls at St Benedict College at Pennant Hills. “I found it came naturally to me.”

But there were broader considerations to continuing a language she had studied in years 9 and 10.

“I was thinking about the ATAR as well,” says Hannah.

So were her classmates, Sarah Jane Arns and Alyssa Coleiro. For the intense effort required, they believed they were more likely to score highly – and band 5 or 6 – in other subjects.

“When I told my teacher,” Sarah says, “I was quite upset because I thought she’d only have one student – because another two also dropped [the subject].

“Yes, I did shed a few tears – because the teacher cried as well.”

“It was really sad and kind of awkward,” Hannah remembers. “We didn’t want to upset her, but it was the decision we had made … She did understand.

“I know in Victoria they offer bonus points for the ATAR for studying a language because it’s such a commitment. If they did that in NSW as well, I would definitely consider keeping it as a subject.”

It is a point repeated by Belinda Jack, the school’s head of languages. After 30 years as a language teacher, she has observed a big drop in students.

Most were arriving from primary school having never studied a language, whereas 10 years ago “half of the primary schools had language courses … I think the curriculum is so crowded in primary school now”.

“It’s a lot of consistent effort and they’re not being rewarded for their effort,” Jack says.

Girls of Chinese of background had dropped Background Speaker or Heritage courses and taken up Beginner Japanese because it would yield a better score.

Japanese was the largest Asian language in the NSW HSC in 2015, but it drew an an “extremely low” 1548 candidates, reports University of Sydney honours student Louise Field.

The “dismal state” of languages is the focus of her report, The Great Australian Paradox: A Monolingual Education System in a Multicultural State.

Field analyses NSW Board of Studies figures to track trends in student enrolments between 2001 and 2015. More than 20 per cent of year 10 students were enrolled in a language course in 2001. By 2015, it was down to 14 per cent.

Despite funding to encourage study of the “priority” Asian languages, there has been no increase in student numbers in Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian or Korean – and the latter is on “a trajectory to extinction”.

Amid such bleak assessments, it is cheering to hear of the plans of Maxim Adams, the IGS head boy who excelled in Ukrainian, Italian and Chinese. He is about to embark on a gap year.

“My only dream is to travel,” he says. He will be well-equipped.

And it is heartening to hear Jacqueline Kosmas, at the Greek Orthodox Community language school, strengthening in her resolve.

“If it were to be the HSC or my love of Greek, I’d obviously choose my love of Greek,’’ she says, “because the HSC is only a specific amount of days or a particular year, whereas Greek will be for life. Forever.”

rickfeneley@gmail.com
 
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