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Language learning

By Penny Vos - posted Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Australia spends up to $50 million a year teaching a LOTE (Language Other Than English) to our children. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, it is not working: almost no one is becoming bilingual as a result of LOTE education in Australian schools.

The Federal Department of Education, Science and Training stated, in 2002, that:

Given the questions and concerns that have been raised in relation to LOTE, it is appropriate to ask whether the current model of provision can ever produce better results in terms of language learning, regardless of the amount of funding injected into it.


Given how long we and other English-speaking countries have been failing, it does make sense to suppose that more of the same is not going to produce different results.

LOTE experience, especially in the early years, is important. It helps students develop empathy, cognition, perspective, literacy, self-confidence and capacity to learn other languages later. However, currently, as many as a third, or even a half, of all students learn no LOTE at all. Most have 45-60 minutes a week. A moderate and realistic goal would be 10-30 minutes each school day for every primary school child.

If actual language acquisition (rather than just language or cultural awareness) is the goal, it matters a great deal which LOTE we teach in this limited time allowance. Children learn languages more slowly than adolescents or adults, and motivated adults need more than 3,000 hours to gain basic competence in Japanese; basic French or German can be achieved in 700 hours; and Esperanto in 100 hours.

As our primary children have between 300-600 hours available to learn, it is clear that we can offer them very different fractions of a language, depending on which language we offer them.

The eventual commitment to a particular language is important to the learner contemplating serious, life-long, cumulative learning as different languages have differing degrees of transferability and difficulty, and offer access to different cultures with different strengths and personal significance. Therefore, secondary students need thorough preparation for choosing and learning a language which will matter to them.

While the students are too young for this decision, the most practical LOTE for Australian primary schools is Esperanto, an uncomplicated but complete and expressive language created specifically for intercultural communication.


Esperanto is the best choice for a general primary school strategy for Australia because:

  • To do so models fairness, and equal respect for all cultures.
  • It is regular and phonetic which make it accessible, encouraging, empowering and inclusive.
  • Educationally disadvantaged students often experience valuable spelling and reading success in Esperanto, even if it has been elusive in English.
  • It promotes literacy through transparent grammatical structure, sound/symbol constancy and use of Latin roots.
  • It promotes numeracy by the exact match of words and concepts to both the base ten number system and other primary mathematical concepts such as fractions and multiplication.
  • Esperanto encourages creativity, analysis and synthesis through regular wordbuilding and a minimum of rote-learning.
  • Esperanto gives access to the widest variety of cultures in all dimensions: language, religion, arts, environment, politics, economy, resources, intercultural relationships, and so on. A broad perspective sets the scene for later detailed studies.
  • Esperanto has no exceptions to its “rules” so students have time to learn more transferable general LOTE concepts, skills and attitudes which greatly facilitate learning other languages later.
  • Esperanto allows quality preparation for generalist teachers in a time frame affordable for education providers.

Primary school graduates, with a good grounding in successful language learning, are both motivated and well-prepared to make a meaningful commitment to the study of a third language and culture in secondary school and beyond.

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A more detailed and fully referenced version of this submission is available from the author at

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About the Author

Penelope Vos was Deputy Principal of The Foothills School in Perth in 1995. The independent secondary school's review of their Languages Other Than English programs involved clarifiying purpose, identifying all alternatives, thorough comparison of the costs and benefits of each strategy conceived and and purposeful implementation of the plan. The review concluded that the school should teach Esperanto and that the deputy should both learn and teach it. She remained as Head of LOTE at the Foothills School and then at Treetops Montessori School in Perth for many years and is now Director of Education of the The Australian Esperanto Association Inc.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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