Many physiological studies have shown that the brains of bilingual people operate differently to single language speakers, and in fact, that learning a second language is a great asset to the cognitive process. 

Australia is one of the most multilingual societies in the world – the 2006 Census shows that more than 350 languages are in regular use in homes and workplaces around the country.

Despite this, language learning in Australian schools translates to low completion rates in second languages, high rates of attrition from university language programs and a decline in the number of languages taught, their duration, spread and level of seriousness.

In 2015, the Federal Government announced a new trial that aims to boost language studies by having children in 40 preschools taught in a second language.

Under the $9.8 million trial, children are taught one of five languages – Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian, Arabic or French – using games and interactive apps. The trial forms part of a wider push by the government to promote languages in schools, after it was found that the number of Year 12 students studying a second language had dropped from 40 per cent in the 1960s to only 12 per cent today.

Melbourne University linguistics professor Joseph Lo Bianco says while the state of language education in Australia has some positives, it is still in a general state of inertia.

“When I say positive, I mean the state of Victoria is moving ahead quite well, there are new moves for state policy in New South Wales, which is really overdue, but in general the performance across the country is not very good and in comparison with other countries, it’s pretty poor,” he says.

Director of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), Kathe Kirby, believes we are experiencing an interesting time for languages in Australian schools. 

“In the past, we haven’t really valued languages as one of the core learning areas in Australian schools. It has been included as a core learning area but it hasn’t been mandatory or compulsory for all students and therefore we’ve only got about half of our students who are actually studying a language. That’s the base we’re coming off,” she says.

The current state of language education 

As it currently stands, Victoria is the only state to have set an explicit goal to have compulsory language learning for all students in government schools from Prep to Year 10 by 2025.

While most other states have compulsory languages at specific year levels, none have them after Year 8, which results in many students giving up the subject early in their secondary schooling.

What’s more, in Western Australia, less than half of public schools offer learning a language other than English and a quarter of the state’s public primary schools don’t offer foreign languages. 

Lo Bianco says that while there has been a great deal of promotion of language learning by government, particularly in the Gillard and Rudd years, the programs that are developed for schools are not particularly serious. 

“Language learning takes a lot of time and I think a lot of people were hoping for quick fixes,” he says.

“They think their kids might have a better chance of getting a job if they know some Japanese or Chinese, but in fact the marketplace is not that strong for languages in Australia because the majority of our trade is done in English anyway, and students don’t get high enough skills in the language programs in schools.”

Kirby sees it from a different perspective.

“I think that school educators, and that includes school principals and teachers, and it also includes education system policy makers, are now recognising that languages are one of those core capabilities that young people are going to need in an increasingly globalised world,” she says.

“I’ve seen action occurring around the country, really serious action, particularly at a policy level in the first instance, to see what it is we can now do to ensure that more young people have access to languages learning and more young people have success in languages learning so they will want to continue it on to the end of their schooling and potentially into further education.”

The value of learning a foreign language

Despite the push from government to encourage the learning of languages up to the senior years of high school, Kirby says she believes speaking a second language is a skill that isn’t valued by the majority of Australians.

“Unlike most people in the world who are connected to other countries through close land borders and so on, we’re not, and we haven’t valued having a second language,” she says.

“It’s just normal for most young people around the world to exit schooling with two or more languages but in Australia, we’ve got fewer than 13 per cent of our Year 12 students studying a language.”

Another key issue, according to Kirby, is the way that languages are offered in our school system.

“To give you an example, the Institute of Foreign Languages estimated some time ago that it would take an English language learner around 660 hours to gain proficiency in French and about 2500 hours to gain the same level of proficiency in Chinese,” she shares.

“Despite this, we continue to offer a one-size-fits-all classroom offering for our students in languages, so we continue to offer the same number of hours for all languages, even though we know that it’s going to take more hours for students to gain the same level of proficiency in Chinese, for example. 

“That’s one structural thing that I think has held us back, combined with the fact that we haven’t allocated much time to languages. So in the primary years, students would be lucky to get two 30-minute periods a week on a language and that’s not enough time.”

Another key problem that holds students back in their language education is the lack of transition students experience between primary and secondary school, Kirby says.

“What I mean by this is a student may study Japanese in primary school but there’s no secondary school in their area that offers Japanese, so they have to go perhaps into French or Chinese when they go up to high school and that means they have to start again. 

“Or even if they go into Japanese because their high school offers it, they might have other students coming from other primary schools who haven’t done Japanese and then they all have to start again from the same low level.”

A common criticism of language learning in Australia is that many students never progress much beyond counting, reciting days of the week, greetings and very simple forms of language. Kirby believes large obstacles are in place that prohibit students from progressing with their language education.

“The teaching and learning approaches that we have adopted for languages – we haven’t distinguished enough between different forms of learning for radically different languages,” she says.

In particular, Kirby notes that when an educator is training to become a language teacher in the vast majority of Australia’s teacher education courses, all of them attend the same methodology class, regardless of the language they intend on teaching. 

“You’re not trained to be specifically teachers of Chinese or teachers of French and yet the languages are very, very different. If you look at Chinese, which many young Australians struggle with, you can’t gain proficiency if you actually don’t spend disciplined time learning tone and learning characters. 

“It’s quite a different level of investment than if you were learning French, for example.”

Which languages should Australia’s education system be investing in?

There are six languages commonly taught in Australian schools – Japanese is the most popular, followed by Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Mandarin. However, there are lots of other languages that are also taught, which according to Kirby, creates a huge challenge for our education system.

“Even six languages is too many and the reason I say that, for a start you’ve already got that issue that I already spoke about which is teacher training. If we have a whole lot of languages, it’s very difficult for us to focus specifically on teaching the learning pedagogy for one language,” Kirby says.

“Secondly, our continuous professional learning for language teachers is much harder if there are six or more languages that you’re needing to service, as is the development of investment in research and in curriculum materials. 

“Many countries offer English as their major second language and then one other major second language – that would be the most common pattern. So there might be two languages taught or three, but not six, and I think offering all those languages is something that holds back languages in Australian schools.”

Lo Bianco says that many schools have fallen into the habit of replacing one language for another, every couple of years, and says this has a drastic effect on a students’ ability to achieve a high level of proficiency in that language.

“I think we shouldn’t try to pick winners – that’s been tried many, many times and what happens is in schools, they dump one language and put in another one.  

“What are you going to do in another five years time? You pick another winner and you dump to one you had? It’s just a merry-go-round.”

The benefits of bilingualism

While the benefits of bilingualism are wide-ranging, Kirby can simplify them into three major points. 

“The first one is that I think learning a second language actually really helps you to learn about and become more proficient in your first language,” she shares.

“I think learning a second language actually helps you be more proficient in English because you’re learning about the structure of the language in a different way and that gives you a deeper understanding of your first language,” she says.

The second clear advantage, according to Kirby, is the ability to communicate with other people in our globalised world. 

“The ability to have languages to speak to other people is even greater today than it’s ever been in the whole of civilization because of the amount of connection that we now have globally and the interconnection of all of our trade and economics, revolving climate change, being part of global communities,” she adds.

Given Australia is experiencing some of the highest levels of migration it has ever seen, Kirby believes learning a foreign 
language can also strengthen intercultural understanding.

“I think learning a second language and in this case, it doesn’t really matter which one, it just gives you a real insight to the fact that the way you do things isn’t the only way and the right way.  You learn that different people operate and think differently and that’s normal for them and it’s different for you,” she says.

According to Lo Bianco, the most important benefits are intellectual and cultural. 

“Languages are the code for a cultural system of another community. You can still communicate with people in English but you don’t really enter their world,” he says.

“A large part of the teaching of languages has to do with understanding cultural traditions, knowledge and ways of seeing the world that other people have. They’re the most important benefits. 

“Also, it gives you access to the literature and society and other capital systems of the world, so these benefits may be a little bit intangible but that’s what schooling is really about. It’s about opening up childrens’ horizons and languages do that much more effectively than any other area of study.”

What can be done moving forward?

The figures that show the decline in language learning in Australian schools speak for themselves. But what can we do to boost these numbers and engage students in their language lessons? 

Lo Bianco believes first and foremost, the socioeconomic barrier to languages needs to be broken down. 

“Most language teaching that’s effective tends to be done in middle class schools for kids who are relatively well off and we need to break the socioeconomic link with languages to make sure they’re available to everybody in an equally rewarding way,” he says.

“Secondly, what we have to do is make programs much more solid because if students feel like they’re learning and actually gaining skill in the language – our evidence shows they’re much more willing to keep studying, they don’t want to drop it if they’re actually gaining some knowledge.”

Another critical issue worth addressing is the chopping and changing of policy when it comes to languages education.

“Language policy and language learning is a long-term, slow enterprise. The fact is we need a standard set of a relatively small number of languages that our system will promote and we should then encourage students who have a language other than English at home to keep that going as well,” he says. 

Kirby says it’s really important that we don’t give up on languages. 

“I think it’s part of our absolutely competitive skill set that young Australians are going to require as they go forward into this world,” she says.

“Lots of people are saying at the moment, I’ve been hearing it for years, ‘everyone in the world is learning English aren’t they? Why do we need to learn other languages? We’re lucky because they speak English’. I think that’s a really limited viewpoint because ... if you actually know something about the language of your trading partner, if you actually have some understanding through learning that language and the society and culture, you’ve just got a real advantage over those who don’t have that. 

“I think it’s wrong to say that everybody’s learning English so we’ll be able to communicate because there’s a lot more to communication than just the words that come out of your mouth.”