In simple everyday foreign languages, unis get it

10 February 2014

Two universities are putting rivalry aside to save foreign language programs.

Universities are more accustomed to competing than collaborating. But from this year our universities will offer joint programs in Indonesian, Modern Greek and Italian. Under a new cross-institutional agreement, students enrolled at the University of NSW will be able to take Indonesian classes at the University of Sydney and from 2015, Modern Greek and Italian

The underlying impetus for change is the reality of limited resources and falling demand. Although both UNSW and the University of Sydney are deeply committed to language teaching we face changing and uneven student preferences. At UNSW, for example, Japanese, Chinese and Korean languages and studies are thriving but only 23 students are currently studying Indonesian.

Foreign language education at universities does not exist in isolation. Trends are linked to the study pathways laid down in primary and high school, and particularly to language studies in the senior high school years, which influence choices at the tertiary level. So there is cause for both concern and some optimism about the future of language education in Australia.

News that the proportion of students studying a foreign language reached a historic low in last year's NSW Higher School Certificate exams is certainly unwelcome and will have a flow-on effect for universities. In the 1950s, about half of final year high school students studied a language, due to compulsory subjects such as French and Latin. Today, it's only 8 per cent.

A similarly negative picture can be painted by comparing Australia with other OECD nations. On average, 8 per cent of the compulsory school curriculum time across OECD nations is devoted to modern foreign languages for 9- to 11-year olds, rising to 13 per cent for children aged 12 to 14. In NSW it has been zero and about 2 per cent, respectively, which has probably done absolutely nothing to imbue NSW students with enthusiasm for electing to study a language later on in high school or at university.

Australia is, however, rolling out a new national curriculum that emphasises language study and the Abbott government has set a target of 40 per cent of high school students studying a foreign language within a decade, premised on the need for greater engagement with Asia.

According to the draft "Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Languages", the new national curriculum is being developed based on the assumption that all students will learn languages other than English from kindergarten to year 8 and that the curriculum will provide for continued learning through to the senior secondary level. That sounds like good news, with the potential to boost languages at every level of education.

But among the broader challenges facing language educators are the widely recognised pre-conditions for language programs to work well. One is recognition within the community of the intrinsic value of learning languages other than English as a different way of thinking, a way of engaging with other cultures and as an intellectual exercise that enhances all learning.

To foster language studies, the deans of the faculties of arts at Australian universities believe we must play to our various strengths and collaborate in doing so. We are all committed to supporting the humanities and we recognise that in some cases we can deliver better courses more effectively by combining resources.

Professor James Donald is the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of NSW. Professor Duncan Ivison is the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.

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