Australia’s diverse population speaks over 300 languages – making it one of the most multilingual countries in the world. Yet experts warn we could face a crisis in foreign language education with a monocultural mindset of “English is enough”. This mentality is turning multilingual students into monolingual English speakers, while native English speakers struggle to acquire a second language in the school system.
Australia is a truly multicultural nation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) March 2016 data shows that 28 per cent of Australia's population was born overseas. Yet young Australians are losing interest in learning a foreign language. Year 12 language student numbers have dropped significantly from 40 per cent in the 1960s to just 12 per cent today. Linguistic anthropologist Dr Juliane Boettger from James Cook University says this is due to a monocultural mindset.
28 per cent of Australia's population was born overseas
“I think the problem is that the predominant culture in Australia is an Anglo culture. It's a white culture. They speak English, Australian English. So there has been a certain disregard for other languages and demand as well for these immigrants to adapt to English and learn English and also there has been a decision I think on the side of immigrants to abandon their own languages and only speak English with their children so that contributes to it as well.”
Just over 4 per cent of the global population speaks English as a first language
The World CIA Factbook claims just over 4 per cent of the global population speaks English as a first language. This means the majority of the world’s population speak a native language other than English. Dr Boettger says Australians can benefit immensely from learning a foreign language.
“That is simply a window to another culture, a window to another way of thinking and they need to be able to adapt to other ways of thinking as we are becoming increasingly globalised.”
Australians can benefit immensely from learning a foreign language
Bilingualism can also delay dementia in those susceptible to the disease by four and a half years according to a recent study published in the United States Journal of Neurology. Dr Boettger says there are other health benefits.
Bilingualism can also delay dementia in those susceptible to the disease
“From a neurological perspective, there is also evidence being bilingual also increases the placidity of the brain and with that it makes it also easier for individuals to be more flexible in adapting to new learning tasks and new challenges and this is basically also what we need nowadays in today’s demanding world.”
Nineteen per cent of Australians over the age of five speak a non-English language at home
The 2011 Census finds nineteen per cent of Australians over the age of five speak a non-English language at home. Dr Susana Eisenchlas from Griffith University specialises in first and second language acquisition and multilingualism. She says the home language of bilingual children tends to weaken once they enter school where English is the preferred language.
We have about 300 languages spoken in Australia
“We have about 300 languages spoken in Australia. This is not counting aboriginal languages. Then we have monolinguals coming to university and we expect them to become fluent in language and on the other hand the children who could be the true bilinguals in the country end up losing the minority language and maintain the language at home.”
Most primary school students receive 35 to 60 minutes of language education per week - far short of the 600 hours required for an English speaker to become fluent in another language
An Australian Council for Education Research study shows most primary school students receive 35 to 60 minutes of language education per week. This is about 200 hours over seven years - far short of the 600 hours required for an English speaker to become fluent in French or Spanish. Not to mention the 2200 hours of study needed to reach the same level of proficiency in Asian languages like Chinese or Korean, according to the U.S. government’s Foreign Service Institute. Dr Susana Eisenchlas says Australian schools need to allocate more hours for language education.
Australia’s language education falls behind most OECD nations
“One hour is nothing. We come from other countries so we know how difficult it is to achieve a good level of proficiency. If there was a good commitment then the children were taught languages, let’s say three to four hours a week then this would start making a difference.”
Matthew Timms majors in French and German at James Cook University. Born and brought up in Mackay, he says learning foreign languages have opened doors for him to complete his final year of study in Europe. Matthew is also a representative of the Young Language Ambassador program run by the university to promote language learning to students in Townsville and the northern region. He says Australia’s language education falls behind most OECD* nations.
In Finland for example, it’s mandatory to learn Finish, Swedish, English and a fourth language of their own choice
“In Finland for example, it’s mandatory to learn Finish, Swedish, English and a fourth language of their own choice. So there is that extra push to learn languages. They’re also exposed to a lot of languages around them. So there’s that extra push from the schools. It's a little different in Australia. It’s not pushed as hard and students are able to stop learning languages other than English after Year 8.”
While Australia aspires to work closely with its neighbours, the number of students studying Asian languages is on the decline
Asia accounted for 83 per cent of Australia’s merchandise exports in 2013-2014 according to a Department of Foreign Affairs report. While Australia aspires to work closely with its neighbours, the number of students studying Asian languages is on the decline. A Grattan Institute study finds only six per cent of Year 12 students studied an Asian language in 2011, many of whom are from Asian backgrounds. In New South Wales, 1524 students took Chinese at HSC level in 2005, ten years later, despite an increase of 12,000 more Year 12 students, the number of Chinese language students dropped to just 832.Dr Susana Eisenchlas says this alarming trend shows that Australia is missing out on opportunities to forge stronger ties with its regional neighbours.
Australia is a country of migration - we do need to keep the languages because otherwise we create a disconnection between the younger generation and their parents and their grandparents
“Australia’s position in Asia and the need to trade internationally necessitates that people will speak other languages, not only English. So these are the kids who can be the real experts in languages, and not only in the languages, but also in the culture. On the other hand, Australia is a country of migration. We have so many different communities here. We do need to keep the languages because otherwise we create a disconnection between the younger generation and their parents and their grandparents.”
Schools should provide students of bilingual backgrounds with literacy training
She says schools should provide students of bilingual backgrounds with literacy training.
“If we’re looking at the speakers of minority languages these are the kids who could very well benefit from literacy practices being introduced in schools. For example, many kids speak Asian languages but they don’t develop writing and reading abilities in these languages and if they don’t develop their ability to read it’s difficult to get to a very good level of proficiency where they can use the languages for a business purpose later on.”
Recognising a need to revitalise language learning in Australia, the federal government has set a target for 40 per cent of Year 12 students to study a foreign language by the end of the decade
Recognising a need to revitalise language learning in Australia, the federal government has set a target for 40 per cent of Year 12 students to study a foreign language by the end of the decade. One of their strategies is to introduce Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, French and Japanese to pre-schoolers through the Early Learning Languages Australia, or ELLA, program. The program promotes language learning through play-based apps on electronic devices. The federal government is committing a further $5.9 million dollars for a national rollout next year. Dr Eisenchlas says gaming apps engage young children to learn languages in a fun way.
One of their strategies is to introduce Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, French and Japanese to pre-schoolers through the Early Learning Languages Australia, or ELLA, program
“Children do get very excited on games. Games are interesting because they can develop linguistic skills. At the same time, children are having fun. They’re focused on the outcome of the game and they’re usually competitive so they want to feel like they are beating someone else but nothing replaces human interaction. So apps and games are great tools but they have to supplement not substitute human interaction, because children learn from being talked to and answering to other people.
Scott Wallace is creator of the Loopskool Chinese learning application that targets children from middle primary school and upwards. While he is supportive of the government’s ELLA program, he is sceptical of the one-size-fits-all approach to language teaching. He is referring specifically to ELLA’s Chinese learning app.
Parents can also help their children become bilingual by creating an engaging environment
“Mandarin Chinese is unique in terms of its use of tones in the language. That's why for Loopskool we kind of aimed at rhythm rather than songs. Because children learning Mandarin need to learn the tones and learning Mandarin through songs can be good but there is one problem in that the intonation, pitch changes in the melody of songs themselves can actually interfere with learning the pitch and tone of Mandarin Chinese.”
Meanwhile, Dr Eisenchlas says parents can also help their children become bilingual by creating an engaging environment.
Do everything possible to keep the language going at home
“Do everything possible to keep the language going at home and maybe organise playgroups so the children can interact with other children in a very informal way so it’s not a punishment that here comes the weekend and I have to go to yet another school and study Chinese. Maybe doing activities that are interactive and seen as more fun.”
SBS has partnered with Community Languages Australia to launch the SBS National Languages Competition to encourage and celebrate a love of learning languages in Australia. Find out more at www.sbs.com.au/nlc
*OECD - The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is an intergovernmental economic organisation of 34 countries