French remains the most popular foreign language in schools in NSW.
But with even native-speaker enrollment dropping dramatically over the past decade, there’s a lot of debate about what’s turning students off.
“It’s not for lack of supply,” said Amber Flohm, multicultural manager at the NSW Teachers Federation. “There is an oversupply of qualified secondary language teachers and an undersupply of primary teachers.
“I think it’s a lack of attention to languages in the primary years, a lack of continuity from kindergarten to years 11 and 12, and [mandating only] 100 hours in 7th or 8th grade is frankly symbolic.
“The biggest problem is that the NSW Government does not have an overarching policy or strategic plan for language education in NSW. It is in a state of policy drift and neglect and inevitably it will decline further.”
Melissa Gould-Drakeley of the Association of Modern Language Teachers said a problem in many public schools was the minimum class requirements (often around 15) for higher-level languages.
“I have [Indonesian teacher] colleagues who are in public schools, one who had 14 students ready to go and another who had 10, but both were turned away.
“Last year, 70 students attended Indonesian language courses in New South Wales, so an additional 10 students represents approximately 12% of the entire cohort.
“It’s been happening for years. We can’t get the message across. It’s become this economic rationalism.”
She said one answer could be more innovative approaches, such as sharing face-to-face teaching time with distance education provider Open High School’s online offerings, as many have done. non-governmental schools.
Mr Mullane said recent research from the Asia Education Foundation suggested that students decided to drop out or continue foreign languages for a range of complex reasons, but there was evidence that language enrollment increased when students had a wider choice.
So if they could take five or six subjects in grade 12, they were more likely to include a language. In South Australia, a change to require only four subjects for year 12 led to a sharp drop in language enrolment.
Government intervention has already made a difference: A Hawke-era national program focused on Asian languages, which was continued by the Keating government, boosted language enrollment before John Howard shelved it in 2002 .
But despite all the attention given to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in recent times, language learning has not been at the center of the electoral campaign.
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said ‘the government is focusing on practical measures to relaunch language teaching and learning in schools’, citing programs including an app the government had created for early language learning, the development of a national language curriculum, incentives for teachers, and the New Colombo Plan Scholarship Scheme.
Labor Party policy has a particular focus on Asian languages, with a goal that every Australian student will have the opportunity to study an Asian language by 2025, and a $21 million scholarship plan for Australian teachers to develop Asian language skills in the country.
Mr Mullane said the focus on STEM subjects had diverted attention from the importance of foreign languages.
“It’s interesting when you think about what it will mean to be an entrepreneur in 2016 and beyond: it will involve collaboration across borders and cultural groups,” he said.
“So those who are going to be able to speak more than one language have a big advantage. This message is really not getting through.”
In New South Wales, the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards’ language advisory committee is due to report to Premier Mike Baird this month on measures to boost language enrolment.