Language learning in schools: Are we wasting our children's potential?


Many bilingual parents spend their child’s early years teaching them language inside the home, but what happens when those children go to school?

This story is part of a five-part series about bilingualism and language education in Australia

It‘s Tuesday morning at the Italian Bilingual School in the Sydney suburb of Meadowbank and 11-year-old Sam Evans is giving a presentation about Spain to a small class of Year 6 students.

Speaking in clear Italian, he points to a screen next to him as a large image of a footballer flashes up with the headline "SPORT TIPICO DELLA SPAGNA."

After the presentation ends, 11-year-old student David, who is also fluent in Italian, waves his hand.

"I like the presentation that you did," he says in English. "The soccer one I loved the most."

David's parents are of Nigerian descent and speak the Yoruba language as well as English.

"My dad loves languages," David says. "He wanted to send me to this Japanese school but it was too far away so they found Italian Bilingual School because we are close to it."

IBS is one of a small number of bilingual schools in the country and provides half of its lessons in English and half in Italian. All of the children in the class are now fluent in Italian but most of their parents don’t speak the language themselves.

The school’s principal, Silvia Onorati, said bilingual education gave the students an opportunity that others didn't.

"Generally speaking in education in New South Wales the time devoted to language is very little," she said. "That gives frustration to whoever wants to learn another language because you don't see the positive outcomes."

Despite having one of the most multilingual societies in the world, rates of language uptake in Australian schools are low, with the number of Year 12 students studying a second language dropping in the past 50 years from 40 per cent to 12 per cent.

Victoria is so far the only state to make language learning mandatory from prep to Year 10. In Western Australia less than half of public schools offer programs to learn a second language.

Students ask questions after Sam's presentation on Spain.
Students ask questions after Sam's presentation on Spain.
SBS News

The federal curriculum

In 2014, The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) released Australian Curriculum: Languages, a guide to language instruction that each state is now in the process of implementing.

The curriculum included 11 languages - Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Modern Greek, Spanish and Vietnamese - and three more  - Auslan, Classical Greek and Latin – will be added in 2016.

Our children don’t even realise they are learning another language because it’s a part of their everyday life.

In 2015, a Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages, and Hindi and Turkish programs were released.  

The announcement got little media coverage but in a statement at the time, ACARA CEO Robert Randall hailed it as a significant shift.

"This framework represents a significant step in acknowledging the importance and value of Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages," he said.

State level

The Australian Curriculum: Languages is available for state and territory education authorities to use but is not mandatory and acts as a guideline alongside their own education policies.

In Canberra, law requires all public schools provide a language program for a minimum specified time in one of eight languages: Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Spanish.

The policy requires all Canberra public school students in Years 3 to 6 to learn a language for a minimum of 60 minutes a week and all Years 7 to 8 students to learn languages for a minimum of 150 minutes per week. 

In Queensland, state schools are required to teach languages in Year 5 to Year 8 and "encouraged" to teach languages from prep to Year 12.

In Victoria, all government and non-government schools are required to provide language education for all students from Prep to Year 10. It is currently the only state in Australia to mandate language learning across all schools to that year level.

"Victorian schools are expected to provide language programs for all their students as part of the curriculum, as they do for the other learning areas such as science or maths," a Department of Education spokesperson told SBS.

When asked if the Queensland government would follow suit, a spokesperson said it was committed to "expanding the study of culture and languages from prep to Year 12 in state schools, with a focus on Asian languages."


In recent years there have been a rise in the number of bilingual and multilingual playgroups around Australia as parents search for opportunities outside of the school setting.

These groups are aimed at introducing language and culture to children at a critical age, supplementing an area largely devoid of policy initiatives.

In an effort to address this, the federal government introduced a $9.8 million trial program in 2015 aimed at teaching language to preschoolers using play-based apps.

The languages offered in the trial were Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian, French and Arabic. 

Nesha ONeil, the owner of two childcare centres that participated in the trial, told SBS that the children had been hesitant at first but soon got a hang of the technology.

"Once they worked out how easy it was an how fun it was for them, they were just enthralled," she said. "And we had to really limit the amount of time they could spend on it."

She said some parents had been hesitant about their children taking part - some concerned about exposure to screen time and others unhappy with their children learning Arabic - but many were surprised at how much language their children picked up.

"This year we had no problems with families signing up," Ms ONeil said. "They were all saying, 'When is it starting again?'"

In 2016, the government announced the program would be extended to another 1,000 preschools.

Starting school

When children hit primary-school age, parents wanting intense language education for their children can chose from a small number of bilingual schools around the country. These include Japanese, Italian, Armenian, French and German schools in Sydney and Vietnamese, Chinese, German and Italian schools in Melbourne.

Mainstream schools also offer language tuition, however classes are shorter and statistics show that most students do not keep up with them through to Year 12.

The most commonly taught languages in Australian schools are Japanese, Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Mandarin. 

Silvia Onorati, principal of the Italian Bilingual School, said that until state governments increased lesson times, students would struggle to get to the level they needed to be.

"It takes about five years to become fluent in another language but you need 10,000 hours," she said. 

But she stressed that perseverance, and longer lesson times, were worth it.

"For children, operating in two language gives them much more: more problem solving skills, much more plasticity in their brain and of course another language, which is always extremely useful to know."

Next in SBS' bilingual series: Calls for increased mother-tongue education for Indigenous school students

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