Census 2016: Second-language learning in Australia 'needs urgent attention'


Australia is falling behind in the proficiency of second-language education at a time when it's needed the most, one expert says following the release of new census data on languages.

Languages expert Tim Mayfield is calling for greater emphasis to be placed on bilingualism for secondary school students.

The executive director of the Asia Education Foundation said Australia had "significantly fallen behind" other countries in language education, and that there was a need to cultivate an informed push involving state and federal governments.

He said the push was important to ensure Australia was able to meet increasing demand from Asia in several business sectors.

The Census Data in 60 seconds

Monolingual speakers on the rise

His comments followed the release of Census 2016 data which showed the number of people who only spoke English at home has risen by more than 500,000, compared with the 2011 data.

While the raw number of English households increased, the share of this group declined from 77 per cent in 2011 to 73 per cent in 2016.

The data also showed that Mandarin consolidated its position as the second-most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, followed by Arabic, Cantonese and Vietnamese.

Top five languages spoken at home (ABS)
Top five languages spoken at home (ABS)

"It's interesting to note that Australian students are learning second languages less and less, compared to our historical track record as a country - at a time where we're becoming more immersed in the region," Mr Mayfield told SBS World News.

"In the 1960s we had roughly 40 per cent of school leavers graduating year 12 with a (second) language, now it's down to 10 per cent - that's at a time where our overall engagement with the Asian region has increased. Clearly there's a problem there.

"Do we view language learning as important as numeracy and literacy? And if so, we need to come up with strategies to fund it appropriately, but also come up with a united approach across all jurisdictions."

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Languages spoken at home
Languages spoken at home

'Australia at the bottom of the OECD pack'

Mr Mayfield pointed to a 2016 report by the Foundation for Young Australians which found a 181 per cent increase in demand for bilingual skills across over 4 million job advertisements they audited.

"Australia is definitely falling behind judging by this report. The most relevant data comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in which Australia's languishing almost at the bottom of the pack in terms of how many of our high school graduates are leaving school with a second language," he said.

"We're seeing in other OECD countries, there are many students leaving with a third langauge let alone a second - Australia is not even in the hunt there."

Professor Sandra Harding breaks down the 2016 Census data

Untapped resource of ethnic communities 

He said a strategy to fill in the gaps was to use the language skills within Australia's ethnic communities more effectively. 

"A good strategy is to start incorporating native Mandarin speakers in top companies using those bilingual skills to do business in more efficient and effective ways," he said.

"The challenge is to escalate the engagement with those communities so that we can get them into these types of roles and sectors where we need them most, where the sectors are at the interface of business between Australia and the region."

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