NSW students lag Australia and world in learning second language: teachers

US Foreign Service Institute research shows it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in languages such as French or Spanish, and 720 hours in languages such as Arabic, Chinese and Russian.

A review of the NSW curriculum called for every student to begin learning a second language at primary school rather than high schools. It was one of the few recommendations the state government did not accept nor explore further, simply saying it was “noted”.

A recent report by NSW Parliament’s education committee made the same recommendation, saying the significant cost would be outweighed by the benefits. Research shows learning a second language has cognitive benefits and can improve students’ understanding of their native language.

The European Union requires that all EU member countries make sure all children are at least bilingual. In Finland, children begin learning their first second language at age seven, University of NSW education professor Pasi Sahlberg said.

Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg says Australian children should be able to enjoy learning another language.

Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg says Australian children should be able to enjoy learning another language. Credit:Peter Braig

“I was surprised by the poor state of teaching foreign languages in Aussie schools,” said Professor Sahlberg, whose sons, aged five and nine, are trilingual.

“I think Australia should have a standard that would allow all children to enjoy the feeling of being able to communicate in different languages.”

However, the acting head of the Secondary Principals Association, Christine Del Gallo, said there was a shortage of language teachers in NSW. If language was moved to primary school, a whole cohort of teachers would need to be retrained as primary language specialists.

“There’s no simple solution, that’s probably why nothing much happens,” she said.

Language is one of the eight key learning areas in the national curriculum, and a recent review has proposed paring back the “perceived unrealistic volume” for the amount of teaching time.

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“They’ve taken out a lot of the reflection, intercultural understanding,” Professor Anne-Marie Morgan from the national languages teachers’ peak body said. “If you end up with just a list of language, it’ll become a checklist [of words for food, colours, animals].”

David de Cavalho from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, said teachers had said the languages curriculum was too complex, and the changes would allow students to achieve a level of proficiency.

Paul Martin, the chief executive of the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), recently told parliamentary hearings that other countries that had mandated a second language for students limited choice to one or two options.

He said NSW students had more than 100 options, particularly in the HSC, in which they could study everything from Arabic to Russian.

A NESA spokesperson told the Herald the study of 100 hours of one language over one continuous 12-month period was mandatory between years 7 and 10, preferably in year 7 or 8.

As part of the NSW curriculum reform, NESA was developing new kindergarten to year 6 and year 7 to 10 language curriculum and would continue to work with the sectors to determine the best way of approaching this recommendation in NSW, the spokesperson said.

“Schools have the option to teach languages in NSW primary schools. Students learn to communicate in a language in real-world contexts and develop intercultural understanding. Through learning a language, students strengthen essential foundational skills for literacy and reflect on their own culture, heritage and identity,” the spokesperson said.

NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said, “The language programs offered to NSW public school students are world class and it is a priority of mine to increase the access students have to learning a language in primary school.

“Currently around 30 per cent of primary schools offer languages and I want to see that number increase.

“A key challenge is not every language teacher is a schoolteacher, so we need to find a way to bring people capable of teaching a language into the classroom. We are currently connecting our schools to high-speed internet and I want to explore how this could help bring languages into more classrooms.”

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