Tuesday, 30 March 2010

So, how many languages do you speak?

Apparently the number of students doing a language at Year 11 level has dropped yet again, this time even more dramatically than before.
The powers that be have only themselves to blame. The new SACE (South Australian Certificate of Education) requires one less subject. There is "greater flexibility" of subject choice.
Good students will be encouraged to do what are known as "the suicidal five", English, a double unit of mathematics, physics, chemistry and another science. It is a subject choice aimed at turning out scientists. A language is not likely to be the fifth choice.
Part of the problem has to be the languages which are taught. My nephews attended a school where Chinese is compulsory. This is in keeping with the government policy that schools should teach languages like Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian "because we live in the Asian region".
My nephews, like many other Australian children, have grandparents who do not speak English as a first language. These grandparents however do not speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian. They speak Greek.
At the end of year 10, when my nephews were able to choose subjects, they simply stopped doing Chinese. They have almost completely forgotten all they were taught.
If their grandparents speak to them in Greek, as they sometimes do, they can usually understand but they will almost always reply in a mixture of Greek and English. As their own father will also use a mixture of Greek and English with his parents this is not surprising. My nephews cannot read or write Greek but they do know more Greek than Chinese.
Government policy however dictates we teach "Asian languages". Learning them is said to take many more hours than it takes to reach the same level of (in)competence in an European language but we only devote the same number of classroom hours.
I did three years of Latin at school. It was an additional subject and I had to do it by correspondence lessons. No languages were taught at all in the rural schools I attended. Everything else I know about languages other than English I have taught myself. My working life involves many other languages. I have managed to learn about these things because I need them. My nephews have managed to learn some Greek for the same reason.
Is our failure to successfully teach Asian languages something to do with the fact that we do not see a need for them? Does it mean that when young Australians are asked by their Asian and European counterparts, "So, how many languages do you speak?", that the answer will be "Only one."?


Adelaide Dupont said...

Does South Australia have a School of Languages?

What about community options?

Yes, they ought to be taken a hell of a lot more seriously.

One could argue that mathematics is a language of its own. And the sciences also. In as far as languages are symbols or units of same...

catdownunder said...

There are ways for the determined of course but I am more concerned about the lack of facilities in school - particularly teachers capable of teaching and teaching well.
R, if you read this, would you care to comment?

Donna Hosie said...

I sympathise with schools here. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Languages are rarely taught in rural schools because there simply isn't someone to teach the subject. There are only a certain number of hours in a school day, and english, maths, the sciences and health must take priority. If the child attends a religious school, then another hour must be found for RAP.

Not all children want to learn a language. I detested the way french was taught in my school and never learnt a thing. I left, discovered an interest and then studied it in my own time - at my own expense - to degree level.

catdownunder said...

I sympathise with the schools too Donna - with their lack of resources and time for the things they must teach. I have less sympathy with government policy that does not use resources we do have!

Anonymous said...

In Australia we have some areas where people have no contact with foreign languages, in other areas there is contact with many, and the thing which makes it difficult to choose a language to teach is that the languages come from a wide range of language groups.

Europeans learn languages from neighbouring countries, but a lot of those languages are related. Here in Australia we speak a European language but are surrounded by unrelated languages.

In addition, the demographics in any area can change quickly, so that by the time we realise there has been an influx of people from one area of the world, they have moved on and another group has replaced them. In six years we have lived here the influxes have come from New Zealand, African continent, China, India and the Middle East, and currently the Phillipinos are moving in. The education system is never going to keep up to that many changes, and even if they did, the second language learned in school by checkout operators would be useless within a couple of years of starting work.

It is much easier to learn languages related to our own, so perhaps if we concentrated on European languages first, then introduced other language groups when the student has found an interest in languages.

Another approach would be would be a course which introduces the use of language as communication around the world, with support for study in individual languages.

In the meantime, I find myself communicating with people using Googlish. I have to read between the lines to make sense of it, but a good knowledge of my own language is proving to be a big help!

Anonymous said...


The best encouragement to learn a language is to be able to use the new language in real life, amongst class mates, friends and family. Much more fun than the classroom.

Tony said...

Several ;)