In opposition to mandatory languages

My online social networks were alive yesterday after an article in the Courier Mail revealed that the mandatory status of Languages in Qld was being questioned. In the backlash that has begun, I feel I stand alone among my Qld colleagues in my opposition to mandatory Languages, though my opposition is probably not with the same intentions or motivations as the current review.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning the inclusion of Languages in schools. Those who know me will know that I am passionate about Languages education. But, I’m up for stirring the pot on this issue and would encourage you to debate the ramblings outlined in this post.

When the policy of mandatory Languages was introduced in Queensland in 1991, the Queensland government was showing a commitment to establishing Languages as an integral part of a well-rounded education, in an environment where it was not particularly valued. The ultimate aim was to increase the number of students graduating from Qld high schools with a Language. But alas, twenty years on and Queensland has embarassingly low retention rates at well below the national average (MCEETYA, 2008), and even further away from the initial aim set by the Australian Language and Literacy Policy of 25% (ALLP, 1996). For all intents and purposes, the program failed. So personally, I’m not worried about the axing of mandatory Languages.

What I am worried about, is what will be put in its place.

An argument was presented to me by (colleague and fellow lover of languages) naz on twitter that other subjects are mandated, why not Languages? That’s true. For all other subject areas there is a set (national or state) curriculum, and there is an expectation that it is taught. But I’ve never heard Maths, English, PE, etc in the same breath as the word ‘mandatory’. There is no argument. They just are. When we align the concept of compulsion with Languages, we are communicating that there is an alternative. And it looks like that alternative is being considered.

That Languages has many benefits for students is not a controversial statement. Although the rednecks and cynics may try to suggest otherwise (read some of the comments below the Courier Mail article for evidence), there is plenty of empirical evidence which clearly proves the many cognitive and social benefits to learning a language. What isn’t clear in the research literature is exactly how much language input or study is required for these benefits to be ‘activated’. Surely one lesson 30 minutes a week isn’t enough to bring about the benefits that are espoused? What about programs that are delivered with a bare minimum of resources and minimal budget? What about a program taught by someone without training in language pedagogy? What about a program that is pushed aside for things ‘more important’? A program that is taught in a corner of the room? A program that in many eyes is there to provide Non-Contact Time to the ‘real’, classroom teacher. Sadly, the reality for too many primary school programs is instability, lack of support, and huge variety in program design (De Kretser & Spence-Brown, 2010; LoBianco, 2009; Slaughter, 2007).

I don’t think the argument at this point should be about mandation (Sarah Palin thinks it’s a word, but I like it anyway). Too many people can turn around and say that it hasn’t worked – and we don’t really have a leg to stand on. Because at the end of the day what was mandated was Languages, what wasn’t mandated was anything else necessary for quality languages education (time, resources, teacher education, support).

I would therefore humbly like to propose an alternative  model for Languages Education in Queensland, based a bit on my research into teacher shortages and attrition, and a lot on gut instinct.

*X-number of schools opt to become ‘Language schools’
*The best teachers are selected to teach in these schools, helping alleviate the shortage of quality Language teachers, a major factor inhibiting program success, according to just about any report into Languages education in Australia #
*Administrative and community support is assured as schools are self-nominating
*All students in these schools learn a Language or Languages from P-10 for a mandated number of hours each week.
*These schools are supported through extra funding which is earmarked for Languages, not siphoned into other areas
*Resources and facilities are given to allow online communication between classes in Qld and their international counterparts, and where possible engage in student and teacher exchanges
*Teachers are given support through training and development of teaching methodology and language proficiency

Long-term vision
*In 12 years the first round of students graduate with high levels of proficiency which they have gained through programs with adequate time, resources and support
*Graduates are competitive in a global job market, and get jobs using their Languages skills
*Parents and students see real outcomes and ask their local schools why they aren’t a ‘Language school’

The dream
*Languages education grows in Qld because communities see the benefits, not because they hear about them and are expected to accept them as gospel
*Courier Mail starts praising Languages education and the comments are mostly positive, and none show thinly veiled xenophobia (ah, but I dream).

My current APA referencing guide isn’t up-to-date with how to reference a Tweet, but in his infinite wisdom Jo LoBianco Tweeted on 8 July, 2013, “If Oz lang policy were less boastful, its rhetoric more tempered, language more realistic, goals more modest, its outcomes would improve”. So, do we want quantity or do we want quality? Of course both is the ideal, but we need to start small, and we need to be realistic.


*What is your reaction to the Courier Mail article?
*What do you think about mandatory languages?
*For readers outside of Qld, how is Languages education delivered in your state/country?
*What do you think of my model for Languages education? Could it work?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our facebook comments.


#Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2011). Shape of the Australian
Curriculum: Languages. Sydney: Author.

#Australian Language and Literacy Council. (1996). Language teachers: The pivot of policy. The supply and quality of teachers of Languages Other Than English.

#Commonwealth of Australia. (2002). Review of the Commonwealth Languages Other than English Programme. A report to the Department of Education, Science and Training.

deKretser, A. & Spence-Brown, R. (2010). The Current State of Japanese Language Education in Australian

Liddicoat, A. J. (2010). Policy Change and Educational Inertia: Language Policy and Language Education in Australian Schooling. In A. Liddicoat and A. Scarino (Eds.), Languages in Australian education: Problems, prospects and future directions. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Lo  Bianco, J. (2009). Second Languages and Australian Schooling. Australian Council for Educational Research: Melbourne.

Ministerial Council on Education Employment Training and Youth Affairs. (2008). National report on
schooling in Australia 2008. Additional statistics on Australian schooling. Melbourne: Author.

#Nicholas, H., Moore, H., Clyne, M. & Pauwels, A. (1994). Languages at the Crossroads. The Guide to the Report of the National Enquiry Into the Employment and Supply of Teachers of Languages Other Than English. National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia.

#Simpson Norris Pty Ltd. (1999). Language Teacher proficiency or teacher language proficiency? Environmental scan of information relating to the competencies/qualities/knowledges required to be an effective language teacher. A report prepared for the NALSASS Taskforce.

Slaughter, Y. (2007b). The study of Asian languages in two Australian schools: Considerations for language-in-education policy and planning. PhD Thesis. University of Melbourne.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

9 thoughts on “In opposition to mandatory languages

  1. What I don’t understand is why we have such difficulty with the notion that learning languages is normal, not abnormal. I’m in Germany at the moment and the language proficiency of the fruiterer around the corner in English is stunning. I think we do ourselves harm as languages advocates when we suggest languages are ‘special’ and need to be taught in ‘specialised schools’ – it’s clearly not necessary in so many other contexts around the world in order to achieve competency in a range of languages. I do agree, however, that there is a need to emphasise the conditions under which languages are offered. I would suggest that we need a stronger commitment to CLIL-like offerings in schools and, particularly, in primary education where students’ affective barriers to languages are less aggressive. This for me is the one area where the Australian Curriculum: Languages needs strengthening – we need a commitment to quality, cross-curricular, whole-school approaches to languages. The other thorny issue could be that it’s time to identify a small core of key languages and stop pretending this isn’t already happening BUT we can’t discard the long history and extensive resources (human and material) that exist in the teaching traditions of certain European languages in Australia in favour of jingoistic trends or fallacious arguments like economic necessity.


    • Hi everyone

      I don’t know why there is so much shedding of crocodile tears about learning and languages. I hope to be found not too nostalgic when telling if my school days of long ago.

      I was in Primary four and a half years when I got a Secondary placement in Berlin 1950. When my family moved to Munich in 1951 I got accepted at the high school there which brought me for introduction keeping up with being behind one year of Latin just for fun.

      My school was sharing the building with another high school which gave us Mo-We 8am-1pm, Th and Fr 1-6pm and Sa 8am-10:30am/10:30am-1pm one year and the other way round the next one for most of my school years. There were six lessons @ 45 minutes and a break of half an hour adding up to 33 lessons per week. From grade 5 there where daily lessons in Latin, from grade 8 idem in classical Greek and year 11 added English as third foreign language. There was enough room for the mother tongue German, Maths, History, Biology, Music, Arts and even Sports. The short English course even whipped us through Shakespeare in original language (to get a feeling for the endings meanwhile shed from modern English) and poems by Milton etc.

      All but two of my fellow students finished with grades good enough for university studies, one was made to meet the military by his father, one chose an apprenticeship. All but one finished Uni, about a quarter with doctorates, the odd one out became a successful entrepreneur.

      There was plenty of homework to be done, teachers had near no disciplinary difficulties because expulsion was swift and without possibility of appeal, the waiting lists were long enough for such cruel actions. My parents’ education was never good enough to give me any support except for making sure me doing my home work – at these days they were still aware of the necessity of education and that learning meant high effort and hard work – both worked full time so everything was up to me. Nobody had a car, kids went to school by public transport, some commuting by train from as far as 50 km away every day.

      So what? No wonder that nowadays there is difficulty to get enough apprentices and skilled labor. Youth is the time in life where the individual has incredible much to learn – make learning a virtue and fun and forget about “primary family time” in front of the TV or computer games. I was never a nerd nor very successful at school but still it gave me enough motivation to learn later on French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia good enough for traveling use and to aquire Arab, Devanagiri and Thay scripting systems. And I had and still have lots of fun in my life despite such a “streneous” youth…


  2. Here is a question for school teachers who actually teach these languages; How many of your students acually use the language you teach incidentially?


    • Hello and thank you for your comment,
      I’m making a couple of assumptions about your questions so I do apologise if I am reading it wrong, but it wasn’t clear to me. I have been teaching English and Japanese for some 15 years, but I assume by “these languages” you mean those other than English. I am also assuming that your reference to “acually (sic) using the language” refers to use of the language outside of the classroom and possibly after formal education ends, because of course students are using it, to varying degrees, inside the language classroom.
      So, to your question. I don’t know the graduate destinations of all my students, but I have been fortunate to be in touch with some of my former students, a small number of whom I have met in Japan, where a few now live and work, and a number more have travelled. Some of my students use Japanese in their employment in Australia, particularly in tourism. One student works in an export company liaising between Japanese and Singaporean clients in Japanese and English. Of course, she has reached a very high level of proficiency that I wouldn’t expect of the majority of my students.
      That doesn’t mean that the students I teach for a few years and who never look at another Japanese kanji or verb conjugation again, weren’t influenced by it. I’ve never had a need to calculate the volume of a triangular prism, but I know that learning mathematics has given me foundational skills that I apply in indirect ways, and have added to my overall body of knowledge. There have been a number of studies that show the visible effect on the brain when people learn a second language, and even more showing the positive impact of language learning on literacy development in one’s first language. And then, of course, there are the social benefits that can’t be measured, like the group of students from a couple of years ago who I could call nothing but downright racist, who after studying for a year met our sister school students from Japan and taught them how to play cricket, joked together despite a huge communication gap, and built friendships that I think surprised themselves. I’m happy to say that when they graduated from junior high I didn’t consider them racists, but without those experiences they might have continued in their insular world perpetuating their stereotypes and fears about “these” people.

      I hope that answers your questions.


      • By incidiental use, I mean using it without prompting. As for the idea of learning a second language improving one’s skills in one’s own first language, although I do see plenty of value in multilingualism and bilingualism and do have a fascination with foreign lanugages myself, I’ve always thought that was redicoulous, and I certainly can’t imagine how. As long as plenty of people live full lives as monolinguals, particularly if their conversations are restricted to other native speakers of their own language, I simply cannot be made to agree that bi/multilingualism is universally better, no matter how many people tell me things like “learning a language makes you smarter.”
        So, another thing I don’t see myself is this, a test being done in only one language and people who bilingual in another lanugage somehow tending to do better in that test than monolingual speakers of the test in that language. Might learing a language other than English for example increase one’s chances of getting a higher score in an IQ test even if that test is only in English???


      • I’m not a neuroscientist but if you would like to know “how” I suggest you look at some of the literature in that area. I’m not suggesting that bi/multilingualism is universally better, but the science is there to suggest that there are measurable cognitive benefits to language learning – this is not merely opinion nor ridiculous. Furthermore, the reality is that our students are more likely to engage with people from other cultures and languages in their lives, and are more likely to live, work, and travel overseas than their parents. The idea that people can limit themselves to only conversations with other native speakers of their own language is fairly impossible, and by encouraging such a ‘you keep to yours’ mentality that you seem to be suggesting, you are inviting linguistic and racial division and disharmony.


  3. I have heard of studies suggesting that there are cognative benefits of language learning, but the supposed results surprise me.
    People can in fact only be friends with native speakers of their own language, and this does happen in, say islolated areas.
    I did note that I do see plenty of value in bi/multilingualism, so I am not particularly encouranging that mentality you mention, but, let’s say that a third of the general population learns at least one other.

    Let’s quote an example:
    Learning a new language allows us to embrace new concepts that are not represented in our native language. A British individual may have a completely different answer to an Italian speaker when asked what they think of ‘lunch’, to whom it would mean a pasta dish followed by a meat or vegetables.

    In fact, one can embrace these concepts without in depth language learning.
    A north American individual may also have a completely different answer to an Brit when asked what they think of say, dinner, even though they both speak the same language and even use the same word in this case. This difference is cultural, not linguistic.
    A French Canadian and a French mainland European may similarly think of déjeuner just as differenty, but still use the same word and speak much the same language.
    So differences between how I process lunch and how someone from France would process déjeuner are cultural, not linguistic.

    In English there are two main shades of blue – dark blue and light blue, whereas to a Polish speaker these two shades are completely different colours, ‘niebieski’ (light blue) and ‘granatowy’ (dark blue). Therefore, when learning Polish, the speaker must be aware of these differences and apply them accordingly.

    Again, this wouldn’t make a difference say in serious chromatics. Artists (monolingual or otherwise) often have to be aware of these differences, for example, and apply them in paintings, whatever their native language may be.

    The knowledge of another language automatically changes the outlook we have on the world and even on the smallest things like the time.

    Not necessarily, as we’ll see:

    For English speaking individual, time goes from left to right, whereas for an Arabic speaker it goes from right to left.

    First of all, this has to do with the direction that one’s native langauge is written, not on any feature of the spoken language. And anyone else who’s native language is written with the Roman alphabet would perceive it that same way as a native English speaking individual. Same goes for native speakers of languages written with the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets, or any other language written with a rightward script.
    The Hebrew alphabet is written in the same direction as Arabic, and in addition to Hebrew is used to write other Jewish languages such as Yiddish.
    So while a native speaker of German might perceive time in the same direction as a native French or English speaker, a native speaker of Yiddish might perceive it as going in the same direction as does a native Hebrew or Arabic speaker. More to the point:

    *Someone could be trilingual in English, French and German and still perceive time as going in the same direction as monolingual speakers of any one of them.
    *A bilingual speaker of Yiddish and Hebrew could perceive time as going in the same direction as, say, a monolingual Arabic speaker.

    Even if one does know both a language that is written from right to left and one written from left to right, they might either only read or write in one of them, and perceive time in line with the direction in which that language is written.
    For cases where one knows how to read and write in both, and one is one’s first/preffered language, see below.

    There are also feminine and masculine references to nouns in many languages; therefore an Italian speaker may consider a fox to be soft and pretty, because it is grammatically feminine, whereas in Germany a fox is a masculine noun. However a speaker of both Italian and German would have no bias, as their perceptions are not based on grammatical references. These grammatical differences also make it difficult to translate different concepts for a non-bilingual speaker.

    English is not one of those languages, nor are Hungarian, Finnish or Estonian.*
    I would imagine that we English speakers perceive foxes more like the Germans do than the Italians supposedly do. And in our case, it’s not based on a grammatical reference.
    Also, I believe that the gender preceptions of say, an Canadian bilingual, say from Quebec, might be based on the same grammatical references as those of a monolingual French speaker. And as far as I know, a lot of nouns in French get the same gender as Italian equivalents, since they are both Romance languages. So even a bilingual speaker of French and Italian would thus share a lot of gramatacial gender based perceptions with monolingual speakers of both. So even a lifelong bilingual may still share some biases with monolingual speakers of one languages not shared with monolingual speakers of another.

    *By the way these (Uralic) languages even use the same third person pronouns for all people, with no distiction between he and she.


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