EMMA DAVIES spoke with Finnish educator and author Pasi Sahlberg who has worked as school teacher, teacher educator, researcher, and policy advisor in Finland and advised education reforms around the world about the importance of bilingualism. Originally published on 2 November 2018 on The Australia Education Reporter.
Q. Why do you think recommendation 24 of Gonski 2.0 should be about learning a foreign language?
There are 300 different languages spoken in Australia. Young Australians travel around the world and an increasing number of them also seek employment in global labour markets, and there has been a rapid increase in demand of multi-lingual skills in job advertisements in Australia and around the world. At the same time, however, in NSW where I live now, only 10 per cent of secondary school students graduate with proof of competencies of an additional language to English.
Just for a comparison, in the 1960s two of five Australian secondary school leavers graduated with a second language. Remember that in Europe every single child in school must learn at least two European languages. OECD has ranked Australia at the bottom of the list of its member countries in terms of how many secondary school students graduate school at least bilingual.
So, why Gonski 2.0 should have recommended foreign language learning for all Australian children? Because it is 2018! Ability to communicate using different languages is part of the 21st century education. It helps Australian youth to better understand other cultures, find better employment, have a stronger sense of belonging to the rest of the world, and be better learners. I often realise that those who only speak one language also feel bad about their linguistic handicap, whereas those who are able to get by with other languages get a additional boost into their self-confidence among others.
Q. What benefits can learning a language bring to students development in other subject areas?
Research on the benefits of learning languages for general cognitive development over the past several decades has shown how (foreign) language learning helps learning overall.
For example, early language learning benefits cognitive development; there is correlation between bilingualism and memory, problem-solving, and intelligence, and language learners develop more positive attitudes toward the people who speak other languages. There is also correlation between bilingualism and student achievement in international student assessments: Many of the high-performing education systems require that their students learn foreign languages for graduation. Canada, Singapore, Netherlands and Finland are examples of those bilingual nations.
Q. Why do you think learning a language is not a priority in Australian schools?
I don’t know, but it may be because English speakers haven’t really had any real reason to learn other languages. Most things in the world are available in English. Australians can travel anywhere and get by with their English. Entertainment, media and global communication on the Internet are using English as the main language. It is not just Australia. The very same challenge exists in England and the US as well, and until very recently also in France, Italy and Spain. We should always remember that in many countries there are minority groups for whom multilingualism has been natural and often required for a long time. Indigenous people in Australia and Maori people in New Zealand are bilingual and the rest of us should follow them in learning to speak other languages.
Q. Do you think English speaking countries are lazy when it comes to languages because the majority of people they interact with speak English?
I don’t think they are lazy, we often don’t think about bilingualism beyond the needs in our everyday lives. International mobility and increasing need to understand other cultures deeper has brought along the need to also learn about other people and their cultures through their own languages.
Students are much more mobile internationally today than ever before, and the world of work everywhere has turned into multicultural and international where many more languages are used on a daily basis, not just English. Good news is that in Australia and the US there is much more interest today to bring foreign language learning to primary and secondary schools.
Q. Should more Australian schools consider teaching an Indigenous language? Or would a language like Japanese or Mandarin better suit students – considering our Asia-pacific neighbours?
My opinion is that from the child’s perspective it doesn’t matter what is or are the other languages they learn in school. The key is to learn that there are other languages in the world and that anyone can learn them. We have a multilingual family where we speak all three languages. For our little boys that is absolutely a normal environment – they speak the languages that people understand. I would like that all children in Australia would have opportunity to learn the same as our children. I also think that it would be marvelous if Australian schools would teach Indigenous languages to all children, for that same reason.
Q. How can we encourage more pre-service teachers to consider teaching a language? Or current teachers to retrain in a language?
Lack of foreign language teachers is perhaps the most frequently heard excuse why Australian schools can’t teach more other languages to their students. Of course, it is a real challenge, but I don’t think we can afford to accept that there is nothing to be done. Trying to open more opportunities for pre-service teacher education programs is one way. But there are many others. In Australia and other countries that wish to expand language education in schools, we need to also consider new, bold ideas to make language learning possible in schools.
Australia’s advantage is the culturally and linguistically rich culture and society where solutions to teaching other languages may already exist. Technology and emerging artificial intelligence already now provide practical support to learning languages that could help also schools. If language learning in school is considered as important for Australian children as literacy and numeracy, it should show in education policies and budgets so that all schools, not just those who can afford, could help all children to become bilingual and thereby better learners.