NSW students lag behind Australia and world in learning second language

Jordan Baker for Sydney Morning Herald

The NSW education system lags the rest of Australia and the world when it comes to teaching a second language, teachers warn, with only one in 20 students from an English-speaking background studying another language to the Higher School Certificate.

Their concerns come as proposed changes to the national curriculum would cut cultural context out of language lessons to let students focus more on fluency, upsetting some teachers who argue that a country’s culture is essential to studying its language.

But Ken Cruikshank, the director of the Sydney Institute for Community Language Education, said those changes would be moot for NSW students, since their mandated study of an overseas language — 100 hours — was too brief to learn much anyway.

Professor Cruikshank said Australia devoted far less time to languages than other countries in the developed world, and NSW was well behind other major states, such as Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia, particularly in primary school.

“Australia is bottom of all OECD countries in terms of language study, and NSW is bottom in Australia,” he said. “We are one of the most multilingual countries in the world. Kids come to school bilingual, and end up monolingual in English.”

In NSW, students must study 100 hours of a second language in year 7 or year 8, and can choose to study one for the HSC. Public primary schools are only given funding for a language teacher if there are a significant number of speakers of a particular language in their local community.

One in seven students who starts schooling with a language in addition to English continues it to year 12, and just one in 20 from an English-speaking background studies a second language to the Higher School Certificate, Professor Cruikshank said.

In Victoria, students spend 2½ hours a week studying a second language from prep — known in NSW as kindergarten — to year 10, while in Queensland public students must learn a second language from years 5 to 8 and schools are encouraged to teach one from kindergarten to year 12.

Western Australia is also increasing its focus; second languages are now mandated from years 3 to 6 but will be taught until year 8 from 2023, while in South Australia students learn them from reception — another term for kindergarten — to year 8.

US Foreign Service Institute research shows it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in languages such as French or Spanish, and 720 hours in languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

A review of the NSW curriculum called for every student to begin learning a second language at primary school rather than high schools. It was one of the few recommendations the state government did not accept nor explore further, simply saying it was “noted”.

A recent report by NSW Parliament’s education committee made the same recommendation, saying the significant cost would be outweighed by the benefits. Research shows learning a second language has cognitive benefits and can improve students’ understanding of their native language.

The European Union requires that all EU member countries make sure all children are at least bilingual. In Finland, children begin learning their first second language at age seven, University of NSW education professor Pasi Sahlberg said.

“I was surprised by the poor state of teaching foreign languages in Aussie schools,” said Professor Sahlberg, whose sons, aged five and nine, are trilingual.

“I think Australia should have a standard that would allow all children to enjoy the feeling of being able to communicate in different languages.”

However, the acting head of the Secondary Principals Association, Christine Del Gallo, said there was a shortage of language teachers in NSW. If language was moved to primary school, a whole cohort of teachers would need to be retrained as primary language specialists.

“There’s no simple solution, that’s probably why nothing much happens,” she said.

Language is one of the eight key learning areas in the national curriculum, and a recent review has proposed paring back the “perceived unrealistic volume” for the amount of teaching time.

“They’ve taken out a lot of the reflection, intercultural understanding,” Professor Anne-Marie Morgan from the national languages teachers’ peak body said. “If you end up with just a list of language, it’ll become a checklist [of words for food, colours, animals].”

David de Cavalho from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, said teachers had said the languages curriculum was too complex, and the changes would allow students to achieve a level of proficiency.

Paul Martin, the chief executive of the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), recently told parliamentary hearings that other countries that had mandated a second language for students limited choice to one or two options.

He said NSW students had more than 100 options, particularly in the HSC, in which they could study everything from Arabic to Russian.

A NESA spokesperson told the Herald the study of 100 hours of one language over one continuous 12-month period was mandatory between years 7 and 10, preferably in year 7 or 8.

As part of the NSW curriculum reform, NESA was developing new kindergarten to year 6 and year 7 to 10 language curriculum and would continue to work with the sectors to determine the best way of approaching this recommendation in NSW, the spokesperson said.

“Schools have the option to teach languages in NSW primary schools. Students learn to communicate in a language in real-world contexts and develop intercultural understanding. Through learning a language, students strengthen essential foundational skills for literacy and reflect on their own culture, heritage and identity,” the spokesperson said.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said, “The language programs offered to NSW public school students are world class and it is a priority of mine to increase the access students have to learning a language in primary school.

“Currently around 30 per cent of primary schools offer languages and I want to see that number increase.

“A key challenge is not every language teacher is a schoolteacher, so we need to find a way to bring people capable of teaching a language into the classroom. We are currently connecting our schools to high-speed internet and I want to explore how this could help bring languages into more classrooms.”

(Original article from Sydney Morning Herald)


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