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Languages at school

By Jane Orton - posted Thursday, 15 May 2008

Languages in the curriculum

Learning a new language is a multifaceted educational experience which offers a range of potential benefits in and of itself, as well as providing longer term dividends in the form of mental and emotional flexibility, and the language proficiency and intercultural competence for broader social and work-related interaction.

In support of these claims, a recently published report by Victoria's Department of Education and Early Child Development (February 2008: 6-9) states:

Sustained international research on second language acquisition, bilingualism and bilingual education demonstrate that learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children's language experience, and offers them unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.



The development of language awareness…[is] central to education because it allows learners, uniquely, to adopt the perspective of the other, to look at their own culture from outside, to become aware that culture as a social construct is relative and not absolute … (Coleman, 1997: 7)

Although young adults (typically, tertiary level students) are the most efficient classroom learners of a language in terms of speed and proficiency, because of its important educational benefits, language learning - in which cultural understanding is an integral part - belongs in the school curriculum, and from an early age. And it is in terms of these benefits that school language programs should primarily be evaluated.


Some people show a flair for language learning, and little children can pick up a new language well and with virtually no accent, but immigrants everywhere continually show that people from any walk of life, and at any age, can learn a second language to a high level of proficiency.

The two most important factors for success are need and opportunity. Need means need perceived by the learner. It is generated either externally, for example when acquiring the language seems fundamental to survival, or internally, when there is a strong personal desire to learn the language. Opportunity means having frequent engagement as both listener-reader and speaker-writer in varied, good quality language events, which provide challenges but aren’t overwhelming. This allows for success while also drawing the learner on.

It is also vital to progress that, as they proceed, learners have access to information about the language and its use, and help with learning difficulties. The lack of success in achieving proficiency by large numbers of those who begin a language at school can be attributed mainly to a failure to develop and maintain a personal need for the language, combined with low opportunity to use it, even in the best of programs.


For primary school learners, who rarely have a sense of any external value in acquiring the new language, the desire to learn must be associated with the activities they are asked to use the language for.

Need and opportunity are provided by frequent, varied and realistic activities appropriate for the age group, while fairly repetitive in terms of the language involved. Only in this way will the language be both comprehended and retained.

Realistic activities involve doing something meaningful while using the language: something children are interested in that language is a normal part of, for example, singing, playing games with others, listening to stories.

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About the Author

Dr Jane Orton co-ordinates Modern Languages Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

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