The recent ACER Report, Second Languages in Australian Schooling, by Professor Jo Lo Bianco, provides a timely and comprehensive summary of the history and potential of Languages programs in this country offset against overseas experience. Various experiments with languages in primary schools around the world have failed to produce the hoped for results. “Drip feed” models have produced limited proficiency and sense of success for students, and little meaningful articulation into secondary schooling. Tokenistic timetabling, coupled with a lack of leadership understanding of how languages are acquired, has often undermined programs offered, even when the Languages teacher is highly effective. Programs too often focus on form and not on meaning and purpose; too often they are planned around discrete topics, rather than involving themes which fit with other learning areas; too often, they do not apply meaningful intercultural inquiry processes to really engage students. Thus, programs often lack the intellectual rigour necessary for students to take them seriously. In any discussion of program models, immersion or otherwise, we must focus on what Professor Richard Johnstone, in his foreword to the abovementioned report, calls “the importance of asserting cultural, intellectual and humanistic reasons for learning additional languages “with the practical application of language proficiency an accrued benefit” At a national level, we need commitment to expert teaching, excellent school leadership, and time, rigour, realness and purpose in our programs. This will require long term envisioning of goals, with quality teacher input, then rigorous workforce planning, with its implications for teacher and leadership education. At a local level, BER Languages Centres offer golden opportunities to step back, collaborate within school networks, look at the whole picture, think big about expectations for and of our students over time, tap into community skills, evaluate which program model(s) suit our context, and be innovative in our application of technology to supercharge the Languages learning of our students.
Exploding the myth that children need to choose between second language learning and first language literacy
Norman Doidge, M.D., in his fascinating, hopeful book on neuroplasticity, The BRAIN That CHANGES ITSELF, cites significant research which shows that early learning of second languages in particular benefits the brain. Education stakeholders need to recognise, as scientists do, that “if two languages are learned at the same time, during the critical period (of brain development), both get a foothold.” In fact, if we learn another language prior to the period from 8 years of age to puberty, we can speak it with native pronunciation, something we are unlikely to be able to do beyond this age. So why, in the face of this and a significant body of other research on bi/multilingualism and the brain, does the Languages Key Learning Area still struggle to be seen as important in many Australian schools? Why are children being taken out of Languages classes to “do more literacy”? It takes four to tango – the Federal Government, schools (in which we need to include Principals and Languages teachers in particular, but teachers in general), parents and students. All need to develop a more informed and reflective perspective about this, for the sake of our national capacity and our children’s futures.