Australia's isolation from the rest of the world is never more apparent than when comparing ourselves with people from places like Europe, whose inhabitants have the ability to fluently speak the language of their close neighbours.
By comparison, you might say that Australians struggle to speak any language at all, with our “Strayan” accent and slang often indistinguishable from proper English.
But with Australia's position in the Oceania region seeing us turn towards the economic superpower of China, addressing those barriers is an increasing priority.
A pilot program in South Australia is looking to combat these cultural and language hurdles by becoming the state's first Chinese-English bilingual school.
William Light Reception to Year 12 School (William Light School) in the state's western suburbs has been announced as the first school to teach its students 50 per cent Mandarin and 50 per cent English, starting later this year (with five more schools to follow suit).
Linda Richardson, principal at William Light School, explains to SBS how her school got over the line for selection. “I believe there were 11 schools that applied for this. And after a very long and complex application process, we had to demonstrate our links with the community and why we wanted this,” she says.
“We were successful demonstrating that we meet the criteria. We work really closely with the West Torrens Council, which has a lot of Chinese links with businesses and trade. And we also already teach Mandarin at the school, but not to the extent it will be taught from here on.”
After spending 18 months consulting with parents, students and teachers and applying to be selected, they landed the coveted “first” title, but what exactly does a non-bilingual school transitioning to a bilingual school have to do?
Models from interstate schools, such as Richmond West Primary in Victoria and Mawson Primary in ACT, were consulted heavily to determine how William Light School would make the switch, Principal Richardson explains.
“There will be additional staffing, teaching literacy and numeracy in the mornings, and Chinese Mandarin linked in with art or science in the afternoons. Every student still gets the same subjects linked to the Australian curriculum so they get the best of both worlds. And it's still parent-friendly.”
Mayor of the City of West Torrens, John Trainer OAM, has just returned from a 300-strong delegation (including 11 small to medium businesses from the community) to South Australia's sister province of Shandong and he is thrilled that his council will be home to the first bilingual school in South Australia. “We were pleased to support the application of the school and delighted at its success,” he tells SBS. “[The council] has had our own program for interacting with Chinese residents as they form the fourth largest ethnic group in the council. It's a very multicultural district. One of our councillors, Megan Hill, is working closely with the school and connecting them to various agencies.”
Multiculturalism is hugely important for the City of West Torrens and the bilingual school will cement the work they've been doing. Mayor Trainer explains, “I expect this [school] to be a prototype for several other Chinese bilingual schools across the metropolitan area. And I look forward to the possibility that one or more other of our schools may be successful in other language areas, bearing in mind that we have a very high proportion of residents with Indian backgrounds," he says.
"In fact, to the best of my knowledge, we're the first council to have a young person of Indian background elected as a councillor – Cnr Rishi Dua. [The City of West Torrens] has had a significant number of non-Anglo Saxon councillors over recent decades, particularly Greek and Italian, as a reflection of the immigration waves of the 50s and 60s. The election of Dua is the first manifestation of subsequent waves of migration. And the announcement of William Light School will continue our work.”
We had Mathew, a Year 9 student, saying 'he thinks he would be chosen for jobs because he's bilingual'.
While William Light School and the City of West Torrens will reap the bilingual spoils, there's been another player in getting the pilot program off the ground - the University of Adelaide's Confucius Institute.
The Confucius Institute's goal is to promote Chinese language and culture throughout South Australia by working across government, business, community and education sectors.
Aaron Duff, executive officer at the Confucius Institute, has been working with schools in SA via “Confucius classrooms” that teach culture and language, but not on a bilingual scale. “The idea and the dream to have a bilingual Chinese school in South Australia came via a letter that we wrote to the premier in 2014,” he tells SBS. “We suggested that the state, with its future entwined with China, should do more to get South Australians students to study Chinese. Chinese is a long way behind Japanese and French learners and other languages in the state.”
They've also been setting up sister schools between SA and China with the majority in the Shandong province. “Shandong's population is nearly 100 million and the GDP is 1 trillion US dollars – about the same size as Indonesia. So it's strategic for SA to align with it. With the sister schools, there's a transfer of best practice education method via visits from the principal (management top-down practices) and teachers (hands on in class exchange as well).”
Duff sees this move as a major bonus for the state's economic future, sentiments echoed by Professor Mobo Gao, Director of the Confucius Institute and Chair of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide. As Gao puts it simply, “It is a fact that Australia is based in Asia. The bilingual Chinese-English school in William Light Reception to Year 12 School is an important step to increase our children’s literacy in Asia; building a strong future for our state, and at the same time help break some of the Eurocentric attitudes that dominate our society.”
But most important in all of this are those who will be dealing with the new curriculum first hand; teachers, parents and, of course, the students. With surveys carried out in the school, 89 per cent of parents and 95 per cnet of staff are supportive of the pilot program which would come as a relief to Principal Richardson, but what about the students?
"The kids are excited,” she says. “They are very excited because they already learn Mandarin so they are liking the idea. We had Mathew, a Year 9 student, saying 'he thinks he would be chosen for jobs because he's bilingual'. Another student said, 'I used to learn French at my other school but I like Chinese better' while others talked about their wish to go overseas with greater cultural awareness.
By 2026, the first students to tackle the pilot program will graduate Year 12 and the fruits of the Confucius Institute, City of West Torrens and William Light School's labour will be on display for South Australia and the rest of the world to see.
Learn more about bilingualism from SBS' five-part series here.