Mandarin the 4th most popular language in primary schools! (updated)


I woke up yesterday to read from a local newspaper that Mandarin is now the fourth most-popular choice for primary school pupils in Victoria.

The article went on to say:

The news comes as schools prepare for the introduction of compulsory foreign language education, starting with prep next year. Traditional European languages fell from favour in the most recent figures. The Education Department findings — conducted last August — reveal 29,760 government primary school pupils learned Mandarin last year, up 77.7 per cent on 2011.

This is in stark contrast to the picture 2 years ago where the then EDUCATION Minister Peter Garrett was quoted blaming parents for the national decline in students studying Asian languages at school. Mr Garrett conceded take-up of Asian languages had dropped despite a $60 million program designed to lift their profile in schools. “The fact is we don’t have a driving culture at this point in time which from a parental point of view, we want our kids to be in these schools learning these Asian languages,” Mr Garrett said.

So what has happened in the last 2 years to change this picture? Firstly lets acknowledge there will always be a range of local and national factors involved in changes of this sort.

Locally I know 6 years ago we teaching Italian and it was only when the teacher with permanent status transferred to another school that we were able as a community to look at changing to Mandarin. Schools with limited budgets usually cannot afford to run two different language streams.

Nationally I feel communities increasingly recognise our ties to Asia and not just economic ties. My comment to Mr Garratt 2 years ago was my parent community recognised this 6 years ago and continue to support the Mandarin Program but they are not helped by short-term political agendas with still shorter term support budgets – voice the vision and say the course.

I note that the Australian Curriculum is still revising the Mandarin learning expectations and unlike other languages has pathways for three learner groups – second language learners, background language learners and first language learners. I think that’s sensible as Year 11/12 students were telling me that having to compete at VCE (end of schooling examination) with native speaking Chinese is one of the main reasons they drop out of the languages at this point.

The Australian Curriculum has set a target of 350 hrs of language study in the 7 years of primary schooling. At my school we have 50 minute weekly language lessons combined with some whole school special events and some cross curricular work to make this time.

All this sounds great – however we are larger school that offers similar lessons in music, visual arts and physical education with teachers in full-time positions. I would suggest this can be harder to do in smaller schools particularly with no additional funding.


I recently heard a podcast from ABC Radio National on Asia ready schools from a recent Access Asia conference in Sydney. The short 10 minute interviews of two principals was inspiring for their work on supporting young people developing Asian intercultural understandings. I think the things that I took away from this was the need for greater cooperation between schools to share e.g. student travel (it’s happening in Bendigo), need to see “neighbours as people all around the world” and that we need to broaden the notion that Asia = China – there’s so many more countries.

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