Wednesday, 16 February 2011

In among the letters to

the editor yesterday was one about "multi-culturalism" which stated "Australians must have the worst track record in the world for speaking another language".
That may be true. I do not know. We do have a lot of migrants who speak another language. By no means all of them read and write it. They would not be considered literate and I suspect the writer of the letter was actually concerned with literacy.
I know however that Australians are generally viewed as "mono-lingual". I also know that the retention rate for languages other than English is considered to be low. Further there has been a policy which emphasises Asian rather than European languages in schools.
From my reading, discussion with those who work in the area, and my observations I would say that languages are not generally well taught in Australian schools, nor are they taken seriously. You cannot teach young children Japanese by devoting an hour a week to it. If you were serious about it then it would require an hour a day. There would be children's television in Japanese without subtitles. Japanese would be heard frequently in the community.
If you doubt this then look at the way the Scandinavians teach English. English teaching starts with Playschool from the BBC. There is at least a daily lesson in it. It is compulsory for all students right across the country, even those requiring "special educational assistance". English is often heard. People grow up believing there is some point in learning it and at least one other language as well.
It is not like that in Australia. I occasionally hear Japanese spoken - by groups of tourists being led around by a Japanese speaking guide. When I did greet a Japanese in their own language he did not even bother to respond. He looked shocked that I, a female, had dared to speak to him.
Mind you I only know a half a dozen words of Japanese but I was trying to be polite.
I would probably have got the same reaction if I had tried to use a Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Cambodian or Vietnamese greeting. Apparently you do not do it. On the other hand if I had used French, Spanish, Italian or Greek I would almost certainly at least have been given what I consider to be a culturally polite response. Quite possibly it would have been even more than that.
It is politics not preferences that has led to the emphasis on Asian languages in Australian schools. One of the world's major languages, Spanish, is rarely taught in school here. A major African language, Swahili, is not taught either. We do not teach the languages of the Indian sub-continent and it is only in the last few years that a version of Arabic has been taught - and that mostly at Islamic schools. We cannot teach everything but it seems the time available for language teaching is often wasted because of the political demands being made..
I am also wondering whether the cultural gap between some languages is one of the things that discourages Australians from being bilingual and multilingual. We are making assumptions about how others feel about us trying to speak their language. They may not necessarily regard it as a compliment. They may prefer to use English. Perhaps we should be asking them.

9 comments:

Donna Hosie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

But, as Cat points out this is precisely the way they do learn a language somewhere like Sweden or Norway or Finland. Nothing wrong with it in my view - waste a little less time on "negotiating" etc, cut computer time.
The time to learn a language is as young as possible. Multiple research studies have shown that.
Chris

Rachel Fenton said...

The learning is all well and good but unless you factor in an environment and time for continuous practice the language will disappear as quickly as it was learnt...in my experience :) That be Spanish and French, folks...and still I have yet to grasp English firmly and with both hands...And, while I'm at grappling, Swahili is all fine and pc but what about Irish and Scots and, eek, Welsh and any other dying languages - and what about the quiet killing of dialects the world over so that we can all enunciate bee-a-utifully just the same as everyone else...quick, everybody, grab a language, stuff it in your mouths NOW before it's gone....

Anonymous said...

Donna I would have to disagree with you. I wonder which language you learned and just how fluent you really are? How good is your accent?
The reality is that young children are far more adept at learning a language than adults. One reason for this is that they are far less self-conscious but there are both psychological and physiological reasons for teaching children a second language while they are young.
That said I would never bother with Asian languages unless there was some specific purpose involved - such as going to live there for an extended period. Rachel is right about that. You need to be there. You need to keep it up. Here we can, with a little effort, keep up languages spoken by sizeable migrant groups. The Japanese do not migrate in large numbers - nor do they allow migration. We are wasting our time and resources with Japanese. The Chinese do business in English because it often involves more than one nation. The rest of Asia has long since learned the value of English. We rarely learn enough for Asian languages to be a cultural pleasure but we can learn enough for European languages to be so. I would agree with Chris - cut down on computer time and some of that social contract nonsense and some of the other rubbish that goes on in classrooms.
Bob C-S

catdownunder said...

Donna I have to work in multiple languages all the time and I desperately wish that I knew just one of them well enough to actually hold a conversation in it.
I also have to admit that, in all my vast reading on the topic, I have yet to come across research that suggests it is easier or more efficient to learn a language as an adult. If you can direct me to anything I will genuinely be very interested. Thanks.
I also have to agree - a little less time wasted in the classroom might just make time for a language to be thoroughly taught.

jeanfromcornwall said...

I'm in my sixties now, and learned French and Latin in my teens. The French was good enough to read Colette in the original, and I retain enough to give a tourist directions to the market square, write to DMC to ask about some old publications of theirs that I had bought, and shop on a French website without using the translation. All this without practising. I doubt if I could have learned another language to that standard in the meantime.

Youth is the age for learning languages, and while the young are about it, they could benefit from learning English to a better standard since it is the second language of choice for non-English speaking people.

catdownunder said...

You have done well Jean - have you holidayed in France at all?

jeanfromcornwall said...

Not since I was a schoolgirl. When I was there I was told that I didn't sound English at all. I don't believe my three children could have done as well, even though they were supposedly taught to the same standard in either French or German.

astrid said...

Hello Cat from another Cat from downunder now living and raising kids in Italian which was far from my original plan. I think the secret to perfect pronounciation is the study of phonetics, which I did at Sydney uni long ago in French. Italian - which I wasn't planning on learning - came later through a boyfriend who became a husband, family, mates and one short silly course(versus essays, literature studies, working in a patisserie, au pairing in French). My French which I started in high school has little or no accent (or an African one if I put it on) whereas my Italian has a tinge that my bi-lingual kids make fun of - double consonants argh! Seeing my own kids and their linguistic agility has convinced me that childhood is the best time to learn - they mimic, word is action. My white sons grew up in Ghana and learnt pigeon English - if you couldn't see them you would swear that they were locals. They also picked up Amharic in Ethiopia while I struggled over greetings. best of luck