On multi-lingual education

Having grown up in Lebanon, I was taught French and Arabic throughout my schooling and then English from Grade 6. I will forever be grateful for this opportunity. When my family migrated to Australia, I was able to begin my university studies without the need to spend a year learning the language. When I decided to write a Master's thesis, I found that many experts in that subject were French-speaking researchers from Switzerland.

In this blog post, I make one simple suggestion for languages education in Australia. I have no illusions about the reach of my blogposts or any expectation that anyone will take up this proposal. The most I am hoping for is a discussion with those interested in the topic and generous enough to offer a comment.

My proposal

Choose two languages and make sure every Australian child can study one or both of them from prep to year 12.
Please keep reading to see my justification. I quite possibly anticipate your objections.

Why narrow down the options?

At the moment, the choices are plentiful. Many kids learn Japanese in primary school and then move to a secondary school that offers Indonesian and Italian as second languages. There is no guarantee of continuity. This removes the incentive to immerse the children in a second language from a young age. The investment is almost certainly going to be lost.

What is the pay-off?

By losing choice in languages, we will gain something: The opportunity to use a second language in everyday encounters. My kid's tennis coach will feel free to drop the odd Indonesian or German expression, knowing that the schools in our region teach that language. Our TVs will start showing programs in those languages since a large proportion of the population speaks them.

Objection 1: How can you justify valuing one language over all others?

Narrowing down the options at school need not mean closing the schools of languages funded by the state. One of my children learns a language at the Victorian School of languages on the weekend. Government funding takes care of the bulk of the cost. We pay a small contribution. Neither will the choice of two specific languages stop community groups from operating their own language schools. I also have a child learning Swedish at the Swedish Community School. We pay a little more for this privilege since no one in our family is Swedish and, as a result, the Swedish government doesn't subsidise our children.

Objection 2: Where will you find enough language teachers for those two languages?

This will have to be a long term project with significant investment in teacher-training. We can also make teachers of those languages priorities in our immigration program. We need to start somewhere and, at the moment, we're going in circles, throwing good money after bad, with very little success.

Objection 3: Where will you find time in the curriculum to devote to language learning?

We actually have a lot more time in the curriculum than we realise. We teach the same things over and over. How many times do you teach kids how to find the mean, median and mode before you think: "We won't get different results if we taught it every other year?" How many times do you have to teach the children about the arrival of "the first fleet"? Besides, learning another European language may actually lift our mastery of English grammar.

What do you think of this proposal? Please leave a comment.


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