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.