Once again students learning another language hits the newspaper headlines:
Interestingly it hits the headlines in the only state in Australia (Victoria) that mandates languages be taught in schools despite it being in the Australian curriculum.
So what’s the issue: insufficient teaching time per week which limits the effectiveness of language programs. There is no surprise there. The real question is why?
The answer I think is complex:
- Purpose: what’s the purpose of learning another language when for most students they don’t speak it at home – therefore it must have future prospects? Well sure that’s obvious you say – so for Victorian and I dare suggest Australian students who live close to Asian countries that dominate our trade and economic interests which language?
It seems that’s happening in Victoria with traditional European languages now in the minority in Victorian primary schools although I would suggest it would be a different picture in lots of secondary schools that have stable workforces where its difficult to change language teachers.
At Elsternwick PS (EPS), my former school, the community choose Mandarin because of our countries closeness to Asia.
So what are the reasons
- Competition : There is continuing competition for curriculum time with our crowded curriculum. However I would suggest we can achieve the cultural aspects of learning another language when we integrate subjects with an Asia perspective. Again we did this to some extent at EPS with our inquiry focused units of learning that had historical or a technological or a civics streams but not to the recommended level (150 minutes a week). The graph below shows the average time in primary schools, which is somewhere around 58 minutes per week – short be 90 odd minutes. So why again?
Well one of the obvious points is a shortage of government funding. There is a nominal amount set aside in Victorian locally managed public schools for language education and for EPS (a school of about 650 students with 26 classes) this was about $120,000 which is the equivalent of 1.2 experienced teachers with some teaching resources. This level of staff (1.2) equates to about one 60 minute language lesson per class with a few whole school cultural events across the year. So either additional government funding is needed to achieve this goal (another $150,000 in EPS’s case), or the school must reallocate funding from other programs or a combination of both.
Schools reallocating funds usually comes in one from three different decisions
- increase student numbers in classes thereby reducing the number of classes
- reduce the number of intervention teachers for students not reaching benchmarks in English and Mathematics
- reduce the number of senior staff or administration officers for a self managing school thereby decreasing student and parent support services (e.g. cut parent newsletters, reduce parent meetings, online payments only, cut student well-being programs)
I can assure you none of these decisions would have been popular or in some cases beneficial to students needing additional support.
Well, as Principal of EPS, I was able to accumulate government money over several years by managing a changing workforce whilst still providing all of the above (low-class numbers, intervention teachers for Reading and Mathematics and student and parent services) but still didn’t manage to increase language time?
This leads me to a third point I felt we need to change a perceived mindset before could increase time spent learning a language :
- A monolingual mindset: It’s been suggested by researchers from ACER that there is a perceived global dominance of English. When people immigrated to Australia over the last 100 years its expected that they speak and conduct their affairs in English and that a second language was really a choice people made – be it their native language or one they seek to learn because of self-interest. This idea of choice in many ways devalued the languages program a point many students were sensitive about. Language programs became a second tier subject “nice to do for while” but not at the same value of English, the global language.
I believe in reflection it was this mindset that I struck as principal when I tried to establish an immediate purpose for learning a language via student and teacher relationships with a sister school. In brief when you have ongoing dialogue with people in another country on shared curriculum projects of significance then learning a language becomes a necessity if we are to mutually achieve our shared goals. There is a whole process here of establishing a sister school and building relationships over time that build cultural understanding which I’m happy to share if there is some interest but the point I’m making here is that resources by themselves won’t change the time we spend learning a language in schools.
We had the Asian language (Mandarin), a growing purpose with sister school relationships, an emerging shared curriculum, students and teachers wanting to be immersed in in-country experiences and the resources to make some of that happen and the potential to increase the time spent learning a language but unless we are intentional about changing mindsets then the things as they are will continue for many years to come.