This is what we need to do to boost languages learning in Australian schools

By Michiko Weinmann and Ruth Arber

Our rich multicultural nation maintains a frustratingly monolingual mindset. Discussions about Languages education in Australia typically reiterate the debate between the personal and national rewards of multilingualism versus Languages as an exotic extra in the ‘crowded curriculum’.

Focusing on the economic benefits of Languages, however, is clearly not cutting through in terms of the prioritisation and funding of Language learning and student participation in Languages in Australia, so how do we move the debate forward?

Let’s start with where we are, and why we are stranded here.

A policy vacuum

While the EU language education policy speaks ‘mother tongue plus two’, Australia currently does not have any national Languages policy. Its absence testifies silently to an English-speaking monolingual mindset that continues to undermine support for Languages education. Cue the new Australian Curriculum that serves as a default Languages policy: it speaks eloquently and very clearly about what Languages education should be and mandates Languages from F– 10. Ergo, Languages is a non-negotiable learning area, so further discussion about its optional character is well and truly obsolete.

And yet … this binding endorsement can be easily ‘overlooked’ in the vastness of the Australian Curriculum, so we call for a political and pedagogical commitment to a national Languages policy. It could address many concerns around Languages education currently coursing through the media and topical in public debate. To name just a few of these concerns:

  • Critically low senior-student participation rates in Languages
  • Insufficient time allocation for Languages in schools
  • Variation in Language education across the states
  • Insufficiently differentiated course modalities in Year 12
  • Languages inequality as evidenced in ‘priority’ vs. non-priority languages, ‘elite’ or ‘academic’ vs. ‘lower-status’ community languages
  • The possibility of replacing Languages with cultural studies or the ‘more universal language’ of coding.

Successive governments have a record of starting and abandoning inadequately funded and inappropriately staffed Languages programs. A national Languages policy would provide focus and a framework for developing Languages education beyond the next election.

Dropping the F-word

Senator Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training as we write, refers to modern languages as ‘foreign’ languages. Clunk! Use of the word ‘foreign’ sets up an English-versus-Other mindset, which is obsolete and misleading in today’s global society. The word ‘foreign’ also has connotations of something alien, bizarre, extraneous, ‘not from here’—none of which are helpful when we want schools and students to commit to teaching and learning another language.

The LNP was not the only offender in this case: Labor also referred to ‘foreign languages’ in its recent policy document ‘Growing Together’, an agenda for tackling inequality in Australia. And even SBS World News Radio uses the ‘F-word’ in its (otherwise insightful) report about the push by ‘foreign’-language teachers for a national languages policy to improve language-learning rates in Australia.

Moreover, common labels like ‘first’ and ‘second’ languages suggest a language hierarchy. It is simply not factual to assume that there is one, universal ‘first’ language, particularly in a multilingual society like Australia, and that this ‘first’ language is English for all students. After all, 2011 Census figures indicate almost a quarter of our population was born overseas and there are some 200 languages currently spoken in Australia. Ranking languages as ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ is dismissive of the plurilingual potential of our students.

Money DOES matter

Notwithstanding the LNP’s current general support for Languages education, the actual money allocated and the strategies they describe are very modest: namely, just $1.8 million and a pilot program including only 10,000 preschool children.

Other funding stated in their policy document is not for language teaching but for the secondary-education focused Teach for Australia (TFA) program that attracts $22.4 million.

Overall, what ‘support’ for language education means in terms of concrete funding remains obscure across the policy statements of all major Australian parties. The Labor statement argues that Languages education should not be an ‘optional extra’ within school curriculum but its support for education is a general one and it provides no specific ideas about how it would support Languages education.

Time to move beyond minimalist approaches

As with the Labor party, the Greens’ support for Languages emerges from its support for education generally. Their policy statement argues its support for Languages education in lofty language, but in words that contain little substance: Languages education will open ‘new worlds’, ‘break down barriers’ and bring about a society which is ‘more open, harmonious and tolerant’.

On a positive note, the statement affirms a commitment to teaching Asian and indigenous languages. While the funding for the teaching and learning of Asian languages is important and support for indigenous language education long overdue, these aims remain narrowly described in terms of ‘appreciation and respect for the cultures, customs and history of languages education’.

Such claims invest in the notion that learning a few words and understanding cultures and histories is a pursuit equivalent to languages learning. It fails to account for the complex linguistic, performative and normative understandings that are involved in languages learning, or the behavioural and conceptual cultural notions that set out the ambit of the worldview provided by language.

Age is no barrier

The statements of all parties iterate the common misperception that there is an age-limit on language-learning capacity. This is inaccurate, and also lowers people’s expectations about the myriad ways they can enter into multilingual capability.

While it is true that it is important and useful for children to learn languages at an early age, it is not true that younger children learn languages more easily. It is just that older learners and young children enter into the languages learning process differently. As people can successfully learn languages at any age and can engage different abilities to enable them to do so, the government needs to broaden its focus (and funding) accordingly to facilitate the uptake of Languages throughout the lifelong learning process.

It’s not all about economics and productivity

The prime rationale of Languages education, as described in all policy statements, is to serve Australia’s economic development by facilitating our engagement and competitiveness in the global economy.

While languages capabilities certainly can afford business and trade opportunities, instrumentalist discussions of this kind serve to reduce the characteristics of language to simplistic skills and knowledges to do with ‘local culture and business practices’. Reducing the ‘language barrier effect’ in international trade and business might be one outcome of Languages education, but it is facile to construct Languages education (and ‘priority’ languages) in terms of the economic importance of certain countries to Australia.

Nor just about maximising exam results

A large body of scientific literature has increased general awareness of how language learning strengthens brain function, problem solving skills, literacy and cognitive development.

Once again, though, these benefits only go a small way towards describing how Languages education is useful and important. Arguments such as these reassert the notion that Languages education is important only in terms of performativity—i.e. how multilingual capability can ‘pay out’ in quantifiable terms, in trade dollars or test scores. Moreover, saying that Languages education ‘supports’ literacy suggests that language learning can somehow be extraneous to itself and reduced to serving proficiency in some ‘first’ language.

A recipe for social cohesion?

Intercultural understanding is an important dimension of Languages, but it is instrumentalist overreach to describe the reduction of fear and prejudice as a rationale for Languages education. While very real concerns, fear and prejudice are not necessarily mitigated through Languages learning. Their reduction, however, does go a long way towards enabling future language learning.

Shifting the paradigm

To transform current debates about Languages education, we need a national language policy that works from an understanding of the multilingual capability of the world. A national policy could formally predicate the centrality of Languages education in schools and the latent multilingual capacity of multicultural Australia.

A national language policy would reshape more than school timetables and trade figures. Multilingualism and Languages education are too often understood in instrumentalist terms that cannot capture the complex linguistic, performative and normative understandings that are invested in language learning. The instrumentalist paradigm is underpinned by a monolingual mindset that, by default, positions Languages as an advantageous add-on skill. Learners may (and do) opt out.

Language, however, is both an element and an engine, component and constitutive of knowledge, culture and identity. It is this relationship that embeds the learning, use and maintenance of languages in and beyond Australia. This dynamic inter-dependence provides a sustainable focus and rationale for Languages education in our schools: the authentic negotiation of understandings of culture and identities through and in languages. A multilingual lens opens up new perspectives for socially just and innovative Languages education beyond the ‘first’ and ‘foreign’.


Dr Michiko Weinmann teaches specialist units in Languages education and EAL at Deakin University. She directs the Master of Languages teaching, and co-directs the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL), at Deakin University. Building on her multilingual capabilities, an extensive career as a languages teacher, and as Co-Director of CTaLL, she supports and promotes the teaching of languages and cultures including Indigenous, community, European and the languages of Australia’s Asian neighbours. She has researched and published widely in the areas of language, culture and identity, and is a co-editor of the journal TESOL in Context.




Dr Ruth Arber has been teaching and working in the area of English as an Additional Language pedagogy and practice for the last three decades. She currently teaches units for language pedagogy and practice at Deakin University, co-directs the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL) and is a co-director of the Master of TESOL. She has researched and published extensively on identity and difference, its consequences for critical and inclusive education and for the development of innovative and inclusive languages pedagogy and practice in diverse contexts. She is co-editor of the journal TESOL in Context.

7 thoughts on “This is what we need to do to boost languages learning in Australian schools

  1. Viviana Golding says:

    A clear, no-nonsense article, about Languages Education and the need for a National Policy in Australia. However whilst I agree that a Languages Education Policy, which involves all states and territories is needed, what is needed even more is a serious implementation plan, where all the stakeholders are committed and where there are no ways out.
    It is disheartening that after all the work done in Languages Education in the last years, we are still faced with a general lack of understanding in relation to Languages; we still find school leaders who are not offering Languages to their students or are offering tokenistic programs, where no Languages acquisition occurs.

  2. Michiko Weinmann&Ruth Arber says:

    Thank you very much for your comment, Viviana.
    We couldn’t agree more. A continuous and well-supported implementation plan for Languages programs in Australian schools is crucial. On a brighter note, our recent research has allowed us to engage with some very exciting programs in Australian primary and secondary schools and we would like to highlight those as well.

  3. Brian Cambourne says:

    I was fortunate enough to attend Finland’s national literacy conference in August 2016 where I experienced the social, economic, educational, and cognitive outcomes which a “mother tongue plus two” policy can offer.
    I hope your pleas for a National Policy which frames the learning of languages in positive terms are successful.
    Brian Cambourne

  4. Michiko Weinmann&Ruth Arber says:

    Thank you Brian, for your encouraging words. We can indeed learn a lot from the Languages education policies and programs in Europe. On the other hand, Australia is unique in the breadth and diversity of its Languages education programs and is a world leader in EAL/D languages education. This is a great foundation and provides promising potential for further languages education.

  5. nojo says:

    “Cue the new Australian Curriculum that serves as a default Languages policy: it speaks eloquently and very clearly about what Languages education should be and mandates Languages from F– 10.””
    HI please would you elaborate -i thought the mandate was the need to offer only upto to year 8 and optional beyond?

  6. Michiko Weinmann&Ruth Arber says:

    Thank you for your comment. This is indeed a frequently asked question. We understand that the Australian national curriculum provides a continuous progression across its learning areas, including Languages, from F-10: ‘The Australian Curriculum sets the expectations for what all Australian students should be taught, regardless of where they live or their background. For F-10, it means that students now have access to the same content, and their achievement can be judged against consistent national standards’. Besides, state policy such as “Languages – expanding your world. Plan to implement The Victorian Government’s Vision for Languages Education 2013–2025” is committed to meet targets such as students having received ‘11 years of high quality, continuous languages education’.

  7. Viviana Golding says:

    There is no doubt that there are pockets of excellence in Languages Education at national level. During my 35 years as a teacher and as a Consultant for Languages I have encountered such “phenomena”. With one of my schools in Geelong we won the Best National Achievement in Education in Australia for our Languages Program! The Bilingual schools in Melbourne and in Canberra are also producing excellent programs; the CLIL programs that have been implemented in many schools, primary and secondary, are also a fantastic example of innovation. However these wonderful programs do not change the fact that there are still too many schools that do not offer Languages; that there is still no great support by political parties and the wide community and that ultimately Languages Education is still not regarded with the same respect as other learning areas. A National Policy, a rigorous implementation plan, a serious level of commitment, also financial, by all states and territories, are indeed necessary. The disheartening fact is that we have been saying all these things for years and years and whilst there have been some welcome changes, we are not there yet! Maybe more research and analysis needs to be focussed on the real reasons why Languages Education is still lagging in Australia.

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