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Learning Asian languages – let’s focus on cultural education instead

I’m bilingual. I didn’t make an effort to be bilingual. I was immersed in it from birth. My parents are Egyptian, and I was born in Australia. I spoke Arabic to my parents, English to my brothers, and when I went to kindergarten and primary school I continued to speak English.

I was surrounded by the two languages, both at home and in my world. Arabic was there in our house, around my relatives and at church. English was present between my brothers, on TV, on the radio and well, everywhere really.

As a teacher, and someone who speaks another language, I’ve got something to say about Julia Gillard’s bid to put Asian languages on the Australian tongue by tacking it onto an ever increasing school curriculum.

The intentions are good. But it’s never going to work.

When I was in primary school we learnt Italian once a week. I literally remember nothing except our teacher was beautiful and she had silky long hair down to her waist which she always plaited. I wanted her hair so much. I didn’t learn a word of Italian.

In high school I continued to learn Italian. I was a straight A student and I kept studying it until Year 9. Now I can count to 10 and say “My name is…” and “How are you?” This has not helped me educationally, culturally or in employment. Not one little bit.

So does there need to be a change in the way we learn languages, no matter what the language may be? For sure. But if the intention is to build a nation that’s fluent in a second language, the task is enormous and some of the comments made by politicians as to how it could be done are completely ignorant of teaching and learning a second language.

Firstly, immersion is the key. Education Minister, Peter Garrett mentioned using video conferencing and iPads as a key element. Um, I don’t think so. Do we learn our native language this way? Of course not. Face-to-face contact, body language, conversation practice, and being immersed in the culture is going to be the ideal way for someone to become fluent in another language.

Secondly, how many people will have the cognitive ability to learn a second language anyway? Let’s face it, Asian languages are hard! What if it cost us billions of dollars, and the Language programs were the best they could be – but still, only 25% of those that take part can speak a fluent Asian language at the end of it. Where to then? It will not just require teaching, but learners will have to be motivated to continue to learn the language and use it right through from childhood, to adolescence and eventually adulthood. As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it…

I say let’s put that money into building our Cultural Education and how about we try making ties with the Asian across the road, in our shops, or on our street. Let’s build up those links at home and who knows, we may find ourselves forming bonds overseas without being able to speak their languages word for word. My husband doesn’t speak a word of Arabic and I swear my parents love him more than me sometimes. Language is a hurdle – NOT a barrier.

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6 comments so far -

  1. My husband is french and me Mexican, my son was born in Australia and speaks both Spanish and English, and would love him to learn french at the school, I think would be more useful for him, I do not consider Asian languages are on the top list of the most spoken in the world

  2. I agree that it is too hard (and therefore probably not worthwhile) to learn a language without immersion. I studied French for five years of high school and by the time I got to France I really only knew the basics and even that didn’t help me when I couldn’t understand their replies anyway! I think that we are a bit behind here in Australia when it comes to knowing a second or even third language but it is more to do with geography really. You can’t compare it to Europe where in some parts the neighbouring country is just down the road.

  3. In this day and age it has become less and less relevant to learn a second language. To be sure there are many benefits of learning or knowing another language but as a compulsory facet of education it has little immediate use. Our school has taken a different approach to LOTE (Languages Other Than English) in that our children learn AUSLAN (Australian Sign Language) from grade 3-6. We have some hearing impaired parents which offers an immediate use, but for me I think children taking on a part-time job in their teens are much more likely to run into someone with hearing impairment who would benefit from someone with the basics of AUSLAN than they are to need any Asian language or Italian or French…

    • Less and less relevant?! I think it’s increasingly relevant!Education isn’t necessarily about “immediate use” – learning a language is essential for tourism, business and many more career paths that these children could go on to choose. When compared to other countries, it is embarrassing how few Australians can speak another language, many believing that because we speak English, there’s no need – how arrogant is that?

  4. Aptitude: you mentioned it.
    I too learned Italian at school, for the first two years of secondary school. After that I dropped it, but only because it didn’t fit since we only had room for two electives. I retain quite a lot more, and enjoy translating things from time to time- a wine lable here, an SBS news item there, once I delighted in understanding a little of an opera.
    I support the idea of an Asian language in the curriculum, but not everyone will excel at it, or even enjoy it.

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