Languages open doors - Education Matters Magazine
Curriculum, Expert Contributors, Literacy and Numeracy

Languages open doors

learning languages

 

Learning a language presents myriad opportunities, both academic, personal and professional. So why are fewer students choosing to study a language in school? Expert researchers from the University of South Australia weigh in on the matter.

Italian, Greek, Japanese or Indonesian. Whatever language a student chooses to study at school can open up a world of opportunity to them. So why are fewer students studying languages in secondary school?

My colleagues, Prof Anne-Marie Morgan and Maria Vieira, and I have been researching just this. Statistics show that in the past 13 years, Year 12 language enrollments have dropped by nearly 50 percent in South Australia. While this decline is partly due to the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) reducing from five to a minimum of four subjects, the decision not to prioritise languages is putting our students at a serious disadvantage, especially on the international stage.

Globally, bilingualism is the international norm, with 193 United Nations member countries and most people in the world able to speak more than one language. The extensive and unequivocal research literature on the benefits of bilingualism points to advantages across a range of domains. From higher intellectual executive functioning and cognition, to improved mediation skills, self- regulation, and even empathy.

Research shows us that Australian students with a language background other than English (LBOTE) typically outperform the ‘non-LBOTE’ students at every year level tested (Years 3, 5, 7 and 9), and in each measure (Reading, Writing, Grammar and Punctuation, Spelling, and Numeracy). This also extends to younger learners who tend to perform better in English language tests than their peers.

We also know that bilingualism can boost creativity. Increasingly recognised as a crucial skill in the fields of STEM, ‘Creative Thinking’ was ranked by the World Economic Forum as one of the two most important skills for workers in 2023. Now, as automation and artificial intelligence continue to transform these fields, people who can think creatively and develop innovative solutions will be in high demand. Multilingualism can play a vital role in fostering creativity in STEM by exposing individuals to different perspectives and ways of thinking. Additionally, multilingualism can enhance communication skills, enabling scientists and engineers to collaborate effectively across linguistic and cultural barriers.

While ‘languages’ is one of eight learning areas in the Australian Curriculum, agreed by all eight states and territories – as well as nationally, in Education Declarations signed by all ministers of Education – it seems a little more than forgotten. And this must be rectified.

So, what can we do? Firstly, we need to support maintenance of languages spoken at home, this will encourage students to keep speaking their native language and hopefully continue this into their studies at school.

Secondly, school students must not be put in the position where they need to choose between STEM or a language. Instead, we should encourage students to take languages and STEM subjects together to prepare them for global careers.

And finally, in states where only four subjects are the minimum requirement in Year 12, we need to urgently boost this to five, while also maintaining the Research Project. This will at least reverse decline of Year 12 languages enrolments in those states.

Learning languages is important for all Australians. It reflects and embraces our multicultural society and allows our First Nations and migrant communities to see themselves as important in Australian education systems and communities. Languages open doors; let’s not close them for our future generations.

Dr Vincenza Tudini, Researcher, Education Futures at the University of South Australia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Vincenza Tudini completed her PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and currently works in the Education Futures academic unit at the University of South Australia. Her research interests include the application of conversation analytic techniques to online interaction. Her work on online language, learning and interaction has been published in various book chapters and journals, including The Modern Language Journal and Journal of Pragmatics. Her book on online language learning, Online Second Language Acquisition: Conversation Analysis of Online chat was published in 2010 and her next book Children’s Online language and interaction is due to be published this year.

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