People learn a second language for many reasons, including work, to better understand the world, an interest in the culture of the language itself, and love.
Learning a language has many benefits. For children, it can improve literacy, maths and science skills. It can enhance social skills and empathy, and give them an appreciation of cultural diversity. Evidence also suggests learning a language can safeguard against cognitive decline in older age.
People in Australia speak more than 300 languages. Learning one of these can enrich participation in our multicultural country.
The federal government pointed to the importance of languages in preparing job-ready graduates by including the subject in the university fee cuts announced in 2020. Yet, this perspective is not consistently reflected in the way languages are taught in schools across Australia’s states.
Languages have the lowest year 12 enrolments of all subject areas. Only 10% of year 12 students were enrolled in languages in 2019, compared to 30% in health and physical education, and nearly 50% in the sciences.
Learning languages has a different kind of status across different states. This can be partly be seen in the amount of time each state dedicates to language learning at school.
How fast can you learn a language?
The amount of time needed to learn a language depends on several factors, including a student’s baseline level of knowledge and the kind of language they’re learning.
But the University of Cambridge suggests learning a language for a total of 180-200 hours to be able to interact simply, and a total of 1,000-1,200 hours for fluent, precise expression.
The Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) recommends language learning for around:
350 hours from foundation to year 6
160 hours for years 7 and 8
a further 160 hours across years 9 and 10
and 200-240 hours across years 11 and 12.
Overall, this is a minimum of 870 hours from the beginning until the end of school.
While students in some states do spend around this amount of time learning languages, others spend far less.
For instance, in Victoria, schools must offer languages from foundation to year 10, with a recommended 150 minutes per week each year. This totals at least 1,203 hours by the end of year 12.
The amount of time students actually spend learning a language in Victoria varies between schools. Data shows 79-98% of students across years 7 to 12 receive 180 minutes or more of language learning per week.
But in South Australia, there’s far less requirement for language learning. Schools are required to teach languages for 80 minutes per week from foundation to year 7, and 128 minutes per week in year 8. There is no requirement beyond year 8, meaning the total amount mandated is 474 hours.
This is similar in Western Australia, where languages are required to be taught for 120 minutes per week for students in years 3 to 8 (a total of 444 hours). Every student in WA learns a language in years 3 to 6, with a policy to extend this to year 9 by 2023.
Teaching also differs
There are also differences in the expertise required of language teachers across states and territories.
Victorian language teachers, for example, must have majored in the language they teach. Or they must apply for a Statement of Equivalence to verify their linguistic competence is up to the same standard.
A non-specialist teacher might manage beginner French, but going beyond that can prove challenging. This may explain the sharp drop in student enrolments beyond year 7 in Tasmania, as shown in the 2019 Tasmania Department of Education Corporate Survey (data that’s not currently publicly available).
Anecdotal evidence also suggests a lack of skilled teachers has led some schools to cut language programs.
Shortage of specialist teachers may also help explain why states such as SA and WA don’t mandate language provision beyond year 8.
In Victoria, mainstream secondary schools offer 19 languages (including Hindi, Indonesia and Auslan). Meanwhile, only five languages are available for students to learn up until year 12 in Tasmania — Chinese, French, German, Italian and Japanese.
What we need to do
In August 2019, the federal government promised to develop a national strategy for languages “to support language teaching and learning in Australia”. But what the strategy will mean in practice is elusive.
To ensure better language education across Australia, states must adequately resource their language education policy and outline a clear plan for how it should be implemented.
Some states are further ahead with this than others. For instance, through 2019 and 2020, Queensland rolled out a series of strategies for language provision in schools. These suggested schools will be required to align with ACARA recommended hours. But the strategy document doesn’t explicitly state how many hours of learning should be provided for languages.
A good language policy might consider how much time is to be dedicated to languages, how that time should be distributed, and what criteria should be applied in recruiting language teachers. Development of the policy should also consider what steps will be needed to make policy a practical reality.
Involving stakeholders — such as schools, universities, parents and students — in developing language education policy is central to ensure it’s successfully implemented.
States must carefully consider the professional knowledge required for effective teaching of languages. This should inform recruitment and prompt provision of professional development opportunities to equip teachers with strong knowledge of language and pedagogy.
Collaboration between schools, local universities, professional associations and state government plays a key role.
States also need to have a clear definition of language programs. This is so there is a clear understanding and aligned expectations among government, schools and parents.