Bilingualism has been associated with a range of benefits for young learners, from higher test scores to more creative thought processes and greater mental flexibility. Being bilingual has even been claimed to mitigate the impacts of socioeconomic status on students. However, the numbers of students undertaking language study in Australia is low, so is learning an additional language just too much hard work?
Australia is a linguistically diverse nation, with more than 250 languages spoken in Australian homes. However, many students are opting out of elective language study. In NSW, as of 2013, less than 10% of HSC students undertook a second language.
What are we doing wrong?
Blame some of the difficulty in becoming bilingual in Australia on convenience. Our location has often been cited as the reason Australian students don’t have multilingualism reinforced throughout the school years, like European students. Although increasing numbers of transnational and migrant students are diversifying the linguistic environment of the Australian education system, speaking “the world language” makes it all too easy to forget the opportunities speaking an additional language can afford.
The next problem is a cultural one. Challenging what Professor Michael Clyne once termed the “monolingual mindset” is difficult not only for Australia, but for other English-speaking countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. Many Australian monoglots (people who speak only one language) expect newly arrived migrants (and even tourists) to learn and communicate in English as a matter of course. For many Australians, monolingualism has become the norm.
For Australian students who do undertake language learning, it’s not only cultural and social attitudes that can act as a barrier to bilingualism, but also availability and accessibility of language programs in our schools. While federal and state policies on the provision of language programs in Australian schools have led to a number of recommendations in recent years, the enactment of these is a more complex matter.
Too many languages, and not long enough
On average, it is recommended that Australian students in non-immersion programs receive up to three hours of second-language instruction per week. In contrast to the amount of second-language instruction found in bilingual or immersion programs, three hours per week of language exposure won’t help many students become bilingual. It takes up to seven years of continuous use to achieve academic proficiency in an additional language.
It is not easy to find schools that offer comprehensive (and continuous) language programs, particularly in the state sector where strict school zoning restricts enrolment. For example, in Victoria, the only state to have mandated the learning of an additional language during primary school, fewer than ten schools offer bilingual programs.
Lack of qualified language teachers
One of the most important problems extends beyond issues of funding: there simply aren’t enough qualified language teachers in Australia, particular those with high proficiency in the target language. As with many areas of the teaching profession, the status of language teachers isn’t high, which discourages many from entering the profession. Targeted professional development programs for language teachers can also be difficult to find.
Recently, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group made suggestions to fast-track graduates of languages into teacher training programs, to ease the shortage of qualified language teachers in Australian schools. This, alongside with incentives offered to language graduates to support their movement into the teaching profession, is a welcome suggestion in establishing a wider cohort of skilled language teachers.
Let’s make language learning compulsory
The importance of language learning is often overlooked due to the competing demands of a crowded curriculum. Yet immersion programs, such as content and language integrated learning programs, in which Australian national curriculum subjects are delivered in a second language, can help students to become bilingual while also learning a subject such as maths.
Speaking more than one language offers great benefits to students who will emerge into an increasingly connected world. Language learning should be viewed as a key 21st-century skill. The national curriculum authority supports language acquisition, but following a model of compulsory language learning and funding more integrated learning programs in Australian schools could be just some ways to support language learning and enhance bilingualism among Australian students.
If learning a language becomes the norm, there may be a real chance to elevate the status of languages in Australian schools and encourage more people to move into language teaching. Only when this occurs can we continue the discussion around improving methods and resources for language learning, retention and bilingualism in Australian schools.