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An international education expert says the Gonski report on Australian schools should have recommended learning a language.
Evan Young

SBS Radio
5 Jun 2018 - 12:53 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2018 - 10:39 AM

The second major report into Australia's education system - headed by businessman David Gonski - detailed 23 recommendations for how to address the country's falling test results. But these didn’t include learning a language.

World-renowned Finnish education authority Pasi Sahlberg, recently visiting Australia, suggested the one important recommendation overlooked was more emphasis on teaching students a language other than English.

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Professor Sahlberg pointed to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) rankings, where Australia is at the bottom of 34 countries in high-school graduates leaving school with a second language.

Opening up opportunities

The executive director of the Asia Education Foundation, Hamish Curry, says there are a number of potential non-literary benefits to learning additional languages.

"There are also all sorts of different benefits to being able to engage with language that also go right to the heart of, I think, the much bigger issue here, which is around our engagement with different cultures and different perspectives in the world,” Mr Curry said.

“It helps us develop better empathy, allows us to resolve challenges where there might be misunderstandings, in terms of translations. It actually helps us open up to opportunities in the world that, I think, we probably at first didn't think were possible."

Mr Curry agrees with Prof. Sahlberg that the Gonski report was a missed opportunity when it comes to second languages.  

"He said there was a complete missed opportunity in the Gonski report around re-emphasing the importance of studying a second language, and I think that's because Australia really is behind, in terms of where the rest of the world places an emphasis,” Mr Curry said.

“I think, in primary schools, it's certainly something that has improved, I would say.”

“The challenge is that, when we get into the business end of secondary school, studying a language feels a little bit like an indulgence. It also doesn't create the kind of incentives for them to see a bigger purpose for why a second language is so important."

Multilingual shifts

Data from the 2016 census shows the number of people who speak only English at home has risen by more than half a million, compared with the 2011 data.

A report by the Foundation for Young Australians from the same year found there had been a 181 per cent increase in demand for bilingual skills across over 4 million job advertisements.

The foundation's Annette Cairnduff says being multilingual gives people an edge in getting jobs.

"Our research has shown that employers are willing to pay more money for young people, or employees, who have bilingual skills. We're working much more globally.”

“We either actually travel more or live more overseas,” Ms Cairnduff said.  “So those skills are really needed and required by organisations and businesses as they engage globally with the economy."

Barriers to learning

There are a number of arguments against teaching children additional languages. One of the most common is that it takes time away from a child learning numeracy and English literacy skills, two areas the Gonski 2.0 report identified as needing improvement.

Another argument is that children do not need to use another language until later in life, or at all.

Currently, students in New South Wales are required to undertake 100 hours of foreign-language study in the early years of high school. In Victoria, languages are taught from kindergarten to Year 6.

A senior lecturer in applied linguistics and education at Sydney's Macquarie University, Alice Chik, says, while children would not see the benefits of learning another language immediately, they would reap the rewards.

"Language learning is a long-term project. You don't acquire a language within less than 100 hours, the NSW requirement for Year 7 and Year 8. But how much language can you learn in 100 hours? So we should start young, from primary."

 A national issue

The Coalition Government has long advocated for migrants to learn, or better, their English skills.

This year's federal Budget requires newly arrived migrants to wait longer to receive help in finding jobs if they are receiving welfare payments and if they have lower-standard English skills.

The Government says the additional waiting period will help migrants sharpen their English.

Ms Chik says Australian-born people should also be asked to pick up additional languages.

"The Australian Government stresses that our economy benefits a lot from a multicultural, multilingual workforce, and that is quite true. But at the moment, we're constantly relying on new immigrants, for example, to put in this strong input for that multicultural and multilingual workforce."

The Gonski 2.0 report received nearly 300 submissions from people across the education sector, eventually making 23 recommendations.

It says Australia should move towards an individualised approach to education and modernise the system for a rapidly changing, globalised world.


 The SBS National Languages Competition 2018 is an exciting initiative to encourage and celebrate a love of learning languages in Australia. It’s a nationwide competition to engage language learners and reflect on the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of Australia's multicultural society.

What amazing possibilities does learning a language open for you? Get involved and enter the competition now.

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