A Window into Life in the Suburbs

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these." Luke 12:27 (NIV)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Studying foreign languages in schools a failure?

Speaking of children and learning Chinese, Andrew Bolt had an interesting opinion piece in his blog today about the apparent failure of government initiatives and funding promoting Asian languages in the public school system.

Based on a study compiled by the Melbourne University's Asia Education Foundation, it would seem that the number of students attending such programmes are falling and that attempts by the Rudd government  in a $62.4 million injection of funds (over 4 years) to prop these programmes nationwide has not stemmed the downward trend.

Bolt argues that many parents see little point in their children learning Asian languages as is unlikely that their son or daughter would end up using Indonesian, Chinese, Korean or Japanese somewhere down the track. Students who may begin learning one language in school, may find continuity issues when they transfer to another school. He also notes (as is the case of his own son) that students may be more interested in learning European languages rather than Asian ones.
Those who tend to benefit from such a programme are children of immigrants who learn the mother tongue of their parents. They tend to be the best students in such classes.

As someone who has been in the language learning game, my thinking about why such policies have fallen short of expectations, falls along these lines.

I think learning more than one language is highly beneficial to the child both cognitively and linguistically but the parents have to be in it for the long haul. It's really not worthwhile for anyone to play around with it for one year and then give up because like maths, everything is built on fundamentals. It's not like playing sport on the weekends. A better analogy would be music lessons, which are followed up with daily practise sessions at home. Also, being a parent myself, I know how difficult it is to motivate children to do something that feels like too much like school. So if parents aren't able to or prepared to help their kids along, it's going to be very tough.

Immersion is key to language learning. If a child (or anyone for that matter) is learning a foreign language but does not use it outside the classroom, it is for the most part, doomed for failure. The best way to learn a foreign language seriously is to go and live in its country of origin for at least six months or better still a year or two and live among the locals. It's what many missionary organizations have done over the years to send out new candidates to new fields.

It also seems like these school-based language programmes tend to be more cultural experiences than real language learning opportunities. Once or twice a week of twenty minute blocks isn't rigorous enough. How much time is allocated to speaking? How much time do these children spend listening to or reading resources in that language outside of school time? That, too, makes a difference.

I also believe, that if governments are serious about turning Australians into bilinguals or polyglots, the process needs to start a lot earlier and the programme far more extensive than what education departments are prepared to do.

But, the truth is, I don't think bilingualism as a social or education policy would really work in Australia. There are far too many ethnic groups for one to be elevated above the others. This is not to say that individuals can't go off and learn their language of choice but the state artifically picking what languages people can learn does have political ramifications about how the society identifies itself as a people.


  1. Interesting. Failing system eh? I think I'll still send Phoebe to Chinese school, but she may pick another language in school for her own interest. If she does pick Chinese, that's good. If not, that's fine. But if I were to homeschool her, I'll be teaching her sign language. But that said, it means that I'll have to learn it now. Can't find anything substantial on Chinese Sign Language. Managed to look up some teaching videos on the chinese search sites, but not enough to understand a conversation.

  2. Only because fewer and fewer kids are taking advantage of the programme. Kids these days have a lot on their plate and they also have a lot more freedom to pick and choose. When you're 10, learning Chinese is not a priority in the same way music or ballet or sport might be.


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