Page 146 - Week 01 - Wednesday, 13 February 2008

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because language learning develops the brain, assists with literacy, offers insight into the wider society, opens up education and career opportunities and is a pathway to a whole lot of experiences and possibilities.

We also know that the earlier students are exposed to languages other than their own national language the sooner they learn them, and that is because the child is acquiring language anyway. Acquiring English, acquiring the language of the home, is such a hard task anyway, one that we seem to take for granted with children. But, if they can learn that, they can also learn languages that are not their home language.

There is a value basis to taking languages seriously as well. Our cultures, the way we do things and the way we communicate, are framed by language. In a globally connected and highly mobile world, and in a multicultural society, we need to be able to make positive connections with others. It was just appalling to find out when Australia decided to join the US in the war in Iraq that we had a paucity of speakers of the Iraqi language and of Persian. Of all the important languages, in one of the most security sensitive places in the world we had not bothered. We had developed a military capacity but we had not developed a language capacity.

It is intercultural communication rather than simply multicultural acceptance that is most constructive. If we do not take languages seriously, if we do not at least have the opportunity to make those bridges to people who see themselves and express themselves differently, that intercultural connection is so much harder to achieve. Without a commitment to language learning we run the risk of trivialising culture. Too often it is presented as something that other people do or have and that at most we need to learn about other cultures and about other languages, to help us treat “them” with respect. It is argued that a culture cannot be understood without speaking the language. That is perhaps too extreme or theoretical a position, but it touches on the fundamental importance of language.

Teaching and learning language is difficult in a school environment where that experience is not truly valued. It is worth noting that the Primary Principals Association recently, in trying to focus their curriculum in response to concerns that it was too crowded, have effectively abandoned languages altogether. In my view that was probably just a pragmatic decision, because providing the right support for kids learning languages at school, even with sufficient system and community support, is hard. And if you do not have the passion and you do not have the support, why would you?

On the other hand, there are many people in the community, and many language teachers within and outside our schools, who are absolutely passionate about languages. The University of Canberra and the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum Inc, or CMCF, organised jointly a languages forum towards the end of last year. They identified language teaching resources available in the community and the benefits to Canberra of a more committed approach to language teaching. They developed an action plan to work with the ACT government and community to promote that approach—and I believe, from some of the announcements that Mr Barr has made today, that there is evidence of the government taking up and joining with them on that approach. That is really good, because they are the people that should be part of this discussion.

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