Children’s world expanded by their languages

More primary school children will have the chance to learn a foreign languages AFP photo/Paul Crock
There is a quiet revolution taking place in teaching and learning languages, in both primary and secondary teaching. For years, most Australian schools have lagged behind those in other countries in the time spent teaching young people foreign languages. Now the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is consulting on a new blueprint (Draft Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Languages) that could change the way children learn to communicate in a foreign language.

This document proposes that pupils from kindergarten to year 6 should have between 300 and 400 hours of foreign language education. To build greater community understanding of its significance, and the political will to address the issues that arise, it is imperative that we highlight the arguments and research which demonstrate the unique value of language learning for young students.

Young children have the ability to understand and use a second (or third or fourth) language without inhibition or confusion, and an ability to accurately copy pronunciation. To see this we need only to look around at the thousands of bi-and multilingual Australian children of immigrant backgrounds and the thousands of multilingual Aboriginal children, who move between the languages of their homes and communities.

There is a Czech proverb, “learn a new language, get a new soul” which communicates the idea of the access to a new way of thinking and perceiving which is opened up to a child through language learning. There is a variety of approaches to language learning in primary schools. It is recognised that one of the most effective is an immersion approach, the closest to mother tongue acquisition. This is also referred to as CLIL (content and language integrated learning).

Immersion programs devote all or part of every school day to doing selected areas of the curriculum in the target language. The language is the vehicle for learning science, physical education, or social science. We have over eighty immersion program schools across Australia. One example of this is the primary school language program at International Grammar School, in Sydney. My research on the Year 6 children in this school showed the language skills, strong sense of intercultural identity and critical thinking they developed through the immersion learning.

A school needs parent support and bilingual staff expertise to sustain an immersion program, but they produce significantly different results to short exposure primary language programs.

Other approaches however still achieve a great deal in children’s learning. I speak frequently to teachers who teach wonderful primary school programs with exposure of just one or two hours a week. Primary school students all respond to using language purposefully and experientially, in speaking activities, hands-on tasks, songs, games and especially in extensive speaking through roleplay and performance opportunities.

The internet makes online collaboration with peers in the target country an easy, exciting and authentic new option for language use and intercultural thinking.

An intercultural approach has shaped recent initiatives in language teacher professional development and new resources, and it is making a significant impact on student learning and motivation. A teacher’s modelling of his/her intercultural curiosity and skills has a positive impact on children’s intercultural development.

Learners need more than just vocabulary and syntax, and pictures of the Eiffel Tower, to really understand and communicate with people interculturally. There are myriad hidden aspects of culture to explore, such as etiquette and values embedded in language and behaviour, which are a big part of becoming able to use language well. This new approach allows students and teachers to develop critical thinking, through noticing differences and similarities with their own use of English and their own home and family.

Noticing how a primary student in Tokyo, Beijing or Rome lives and communicates, makes students’ own Australian culture, their lifestyle and behaviour, visible to them.

Research is showing that this intercultural approach greatly increases perception of significance and relevance, students’ engagement and personal connection with the language and its speakers, and enhances students’ understanding of themselves.

In young language learners in quality intercultural language programs, I see profound skills of seeing life from someone else’s point of view, just as powerfully as in students returning from an overseas exchange program.

Through language, children are acquiring the beginnings of knowledge, sensitivity and morality required to comprehend later the global dimensions of political economic and cultural issues. High-tech resources are transforming the world, but do not in themselves promote a global perspective. It is personal experiential learning that shifts our perceptions of ourselves in the world.

In observing young language learners, I am reminded of educator Paolo Freire’s description of a consciousness in learners who take perspective on their immediate cultural environment, engage in critical dialogue with it and define their identity within it.

Sociologist Mustakova-Possardt said “the nature of the relationships a person learns to establish with his/her environment appears to be a powerful motivating factor in terms of becoming a caring, engaged moral agent for positive social change”.

Effective language learning for children can change what Mustakova- Possardt calls their “circle of relatedness” and their sense of belonging to a larger humanity.

An Australian curriculum which gives children this learning opportunity, bringing us into line with the understanding of the significance of language in other countries, is one to support and celebrate. I encourage all interested parties to participate in the ACARA consultation process. .