Attitudes towards the study of languages in Australian schools: The national statement and plan - making a difference or another decade of indifference?

17 Jul 2007

Language has been the Key Learning Area that has been politically easy to ignore. Languages have slipped off the education agenda over the last decade, and public debate has been virtually non-existent. No political party has sought votes for language education in the same way that other educational topics have been thrust into the spotlight from time to time. If anything, the present Federal government rhetoric has turned Australians more inward, through a focus on “Australian values and culture”, the primacy of learning English and emphasising the assimilation of new arrivals as opposed to the ideals of multiculturalism. And the States, which have the fundamental responsibility for education in Australia, are just as complicit. They too have allowed languages to languish.

This research finds that there is strong support for languages education from those people who participated in the study. However all groups said that Australian society, and within it, the parents of Australian school-children, were in general apathetic towards languages education. The study also found that a significant number of school communities reflected the same national apathy.

Whilst many of the findings of this study are not at all surprising, they are important as they bring together the views of six stakeholder groups. In this respect, the study is unique, as it introduces a broad perspective into the debate. The main findings include:
• Governments need to exercise leadership through giving clear messages of support for language education, not mixing the messages with words and actions that detract from the intent of the National Statement and Plan.
• There are simply too few qualified language teachers to guarantee access to quality programs. More language teachers need to be trained. There should be incentive programs to recruit and retain language teachers in our schools.
• There is an appalling disconnect between the levels of schooling that affects the smooth transition of students. This needs to be addressed as a priority.
• The purpose of language education is not clearly articulated, judging by the range of programs that are regarded as acceptable by authorities. The nature of inter-cultural language learning is not clear to the public or to practitioners.
• Existing systemic syllabuses or teaching guidelines are at best unhelpful and at worst non-existent for language education in many primary schools.
• Incentives for schools to offer, and for students to study languages need to be introduced.
• Too little time is allocated by schools to language learning and the way that time is arranged often affects the continuity of study.
• In many primary schools, language teachers provide the release time for mainstream teachers. This practice is counter-productive to run effective language programs, and needs to be addressed.
• Language teachers often work in isolation, and need greater access to professional development and networking opportunities.
• Language teachers need classrooms to call their own.
• There is a disconnect between universities, schools and school systems which works against good planning and other aspects of languages education.
• A concerted campaign to promote language education is required. A part of this campaign should involve professional learning programs for school leadership teams, careers advisors and other classroom teachers to improve the level of whole school support.
• Parent organisations have a role to play in improving the status of languages in the eyes of the community.
• The national Plan should make explicit an expectation that parents have a role to play in the implementation of the Plan.
• Education jurisdictions and authorities should audit their current policies and operational practices and abandon any that work in opposition to the intent of the Statement and Plan.

The study concludes that despite the picture of systemic neglect that emerges in this study, there are many examples of good practice and sufficient community and professional support on which MCEETYA can build in implementing its vision, as expressed in the National Statement.

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