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Tapping the reservoir: languages at school

By Joe Lo Bianco - posted Friday, 9 May 2008

People are often surprised to see how intense debates about language education can be. People often expect that, like geography or science, language education is an unproblematic affair. They might value the cultural insight that languages offer, but many feel that since so much communication in the world happens in English language teaching is a minor issue of interest only to teachers, students and their parents. However, some school subjects do break out from the confines of specialist discussion and become the focus of policy debate in the national interest.

During the Howard government history teaching became entangled in sharp disputes in the mainstream media. Even mundane educational questions like the sequencing of academic content were disputed. English literacy is often taken up in media debate with polarised positions on how the young should be made literate and what adolescents should or should not read.

Although they are incorrectly called “foreign”, languages today are also part of public discussion, and for very good reasons, though perhaps not the ones that make the press. While not as bitterly contested as history or literacy what we do with languages in schools, the choices we make, and how seriously we pursue them, do raise questions about the nature of our society, our place in the world and how education should prepare us to meet future challenges.


Everyday in homes and workplaces across Australia some 400 languages (including Indigenous and sign languages) are used to transact business, organise mealtimes, make career plans, arrange social events and exchange information. Millions of Australians read newspapers, download web material, search for information and discuss issues over Skype or email and link our cities and towns with Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas in diverse languages.

Where in recent debates on language education has there been even the minimum of awareness that we are one of the most successful multilingual and multicultural countries in the world?

Schools and education should not be about making children forget what they know, unlearn their talents, become less skilled than they are. And yet, thousands of Australian children undergo conversion every year, from bilinguals to monolinguals. Many adults struggle all their lives to gain language capabilities like those that thousands of Australia’s five to nine-year-olds donate to public education every year. These gifts to the human capital of the nation are mostly ignored.

Perversely, policy makers sometimes “discover” the national need for language skills, and some of the same students recently made monolingual by our education system are then encouraged to take up second languages at school - as “foreign” languages. Surely we can do something about such a massive waste of valuable human resources.

Along with the linguistic skills we are also losing associated cultural knowledge, international connections and the sense of being cultural insiders that is important in effective communication. Where was this issue, this economic inefficiency, mentioned in the 2020 Summit or in the debates that followed?

By squandering the gift of home-grown bilingual skills we need to outlay large sums of public money in inefficient public administration. It should also be kept in mind that schooled second languages are notoriously unsuccessful. We all learn our mother tongue fluently, but how many people who study languages in formal settings actually acquire usable skills? We need to construct pipelines linking our community language resources with our public institutions: in the “national interest”.


Compounding this is the fact that early bilingualism, if the child is able to develop his or her skill to a high threshold, produces many cognitive benefits. This has been well demonstrated in rigorous studies all across the world. Bilingualism in children has positive flow on effects into their English literacy, their abilities to reason in science tasks and their general intellectual behaviour.

These are the main challenges for our schools, the main reasons for teaching languages to all students, and the strong reason for assisting children to cultivate home language skills and to extend these in schooling. We must resist calls to teach only one or two languages. The community voice is almost totally absent from current language policy debates. This is absurd. The experiences or dreams of distant policy makers alone cannot improve the practical problems of mass teaching of languages, and the choices we make for what we teach in primary and secondary schools should not only be shaped by remote or abstract reasoning on national security, economics or trade.

In research for the British Council in 2006 David Graddol found that some two billion people will soon know or be learning English worldwide, possibly as high as three billion by 2050. No language in history has attained the spread and depth of penetration across cultures, political ideologies or religions that English has achieved. Because English learners do not abandon their other languages we see the world dividing into multilinguals and mostly English speaking monolinguals. This means that in today’s world there are two communication disadvantages. It is a disadvantage to not know English, and it is a disadvantage to know only English.

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About the Author

Joe Lo Bianco is Professor Language and Literacy Education at the University of Melbourne.

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

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