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Speaking the language

By Mercurius Goldstein - posted Monday, 23 October 2006

Here’s a tip that’ll send the Labor party and the teacher unions into conniptions: we need to hire more foreign language teachers.

Australia’s skill shortage extends into an area of teaching for which there is an unprecedented level of demand - that of foreign languages. Despite recent federal government efforts to entrench our dubious status as one of the world’s most monolingual nations, well over half a million Australian children are now enrolled in foreign language subjects at school.

While Australia is hardly unique in having a high demand for language teaching; it has taken a distinctly different approach towards meeting this need than have most other countries.


This article focuses in particular on comparing our approach to that of Japan. The two are very suitable candidates for comparison, for the most widely-taught foreign language in each nation is the respective other’s native language.

Despite both nations having very high levels of demand for the teaching of foreign languages, they have adopted dramatically different approaches towards meeting that need.

Australia’s approach is based on large-scale re-skilling of local teachers under a national strategy, with limited informal scope for independent recruitment, and very high English-language proficiency criteria; whereas Japan’s approach is characterised by large-scale recruitment of foreign teachers in a generally decentralised framework, with relatively low Japanese-language proficiency criteria.

It is important to clarify at the outset that it is neither necessary nor sufficient that a foreign language be taught by someone who is themselves a native speaker of the target language.

Around Australia, thousands of teachers effectively teach languages that are foreign to them. Indeed, many such teachers can better identify with their students’ struggles with unfamiliar writing systems, the nervousness with speaking and the frustration at being reduced to a child-like communicative level, having themselves been through that same learning experience. Thus, this article makes no express or implied criticism of language teachers in Australia today; quite the contrary, Australia’s current language teachers make an impressive contribution to the educational profile of our nation.

That said, there are also clear advantages for students to learn from a teacher whose understanding of the target language and culture is naturally-acquired, and thus more intuitive.


So the argument for bringing in foreign language teachers is not driven so much by methodological or pedagogical concerns, but rather the simple fact of numbers: Australian students are demanding to learn foreign languages in greater numbers than ever before, and there simply aren’t enough local teachers to meet the need.

In Australia, this need has been urgent and apparent since the mid-1980s. Australia’s growing post-war cultural and diplomatic ties with Japan culminated in an explosion in demand for Japanese language teaching, labelled the tsunami, which saw the number of Japanese language learners increase 113 per cent in a single year from 1987-1988.

In response to the strain placed on teaching resources, an Australian Labor government in 1994 adopted a 10-year strategy for National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS), launched by a young fresh-faced, plummy-sounding, Mandarin-speaking Labor up-and-comer named Kevin Rudd, now the shadow minister for foreign affairs.

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About the Author

Mercurius Goldstein is Head Teacher at an International School and is retained as a consultant at The University of Sydney as a teacher educator for visiting English language teachers. He is a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Graduate award from the Australian College of Educators, holding the Bachelor of Education (Hons.1st Class) from The University of Sydney. He teaches Japanese language and ESL. These views are his own.

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