Language of the future

The perils and pressures on teaching world languages

Over the last 30 years, the number of Australian secondary students graduating with a world language (WL) has remained stagnant at around 10%. The steady succession policies, reports, and enquiries commissioned over this period have failed to leave more than a temporary dent in the landscape of languages education in Australia.

Things were not always this way. Australia was once considered a pioneer in language-in-education policy amongst many predominantly English-speaking countries. The 1987 National Policy on Languages was heralded widely as “the first multilingual language policy in an English-speaking country”, and in the 1960s, when studying a language was a requirement to university entry, up to 50% of students graduated with a WL subject.

Since then, “languages continue to struggle to achieve recognition” as a learning area, despite the increasingly recognised multilingual makeup of Australian society. The latest instance of this paradoxical condition is a fee-reduction incentive for university students to study a language, which, in practice, only stands to further weaken the availability of language offerings in many higher education institutions. Overall, the current state of language program provision nationwide remains fragmented and fragile, largely due to a weak language policy environment and the loss of collaborative language policy processes across sectors, states and territories.

In an upcoming paper, we offer the imagery of circularities and ripples as a useful lens for exploring the challenges facing WL education in Australia, and their eroding impact across sectors. We discuss how issues in the sector often transcend the traditional delineation of macro, meso, and micro levels of policy and planning, as challenges go both in circles within the same level (circularity) and flow outwards to other levels (ripples). Thinking of challenges through this lens highlights how siloed approaches to funding, policy and scholarly research all contribute to an ongoing state of inertia.

Rippling circularities in Queensland case study

As in the rest of Australia, the proportion of Queensland students graduating high school studying a WL has consistently lingered – at a rate slightly below the national average (8%). To better understand the challenges and enabling factors around languages education in schools, we interviewed 18 School Principals and Heads of Language departments in 10 South-East Queensland state high schools. From this data, we found many examples of rippling and circular challenges that initiate in the secondary school level but ripple out and circle back to other levels across educational sectors.

One example was the seemingly trivial, administrative area of subject timetabling – which was the most common school-level issue discussed by participants in our study. Within a crowded curriculum, participants reported that WL subjects are often perceived as less crucial, pitted against other non-compulsory courses, or restricted due to limited numbers of qualified teachers. The impact of a seemingly inconsequential administrative decision of subject offerings in the first year of high school has flow-on effects (or as we propose, rippling circularities) for many years to come, not only across the next five years of education and graduation but – when we consider that higher education study and career pathways are strongly influenced by the subject areas studied in secondary schooling – the flow-on effects go well beyond this. The effects ripple so far out they in fact circle back to the beginning: fewer students studying language in high school leads to fewer language students in higher education, and fewer qualified language teachers available to be able to timetable subject offerings.

A second example of the rippling, circular challenges in WL education concerned teachers’ pedagogical skills for engaging students, a challenge that was referenced frequently in interviews. We know from the literature that the perceived or actual shortages of skills around engaging and motivating pedagogies not only have a negative impact on the students’ learning, but also, on that teacher’s own plans to remain in the profession. WL teacher efficacy has also been found to be related to their future vocational plans and whether they plan to remain teaching or leave the profession. Teachers who are more effective in their practice (as measured by the assessment scores of their students) are less likely to leave the teaching profession. Given the existing critical shortage of WL teachers is predicted to become more severe as student numbers increase and current teachers reach retiring age, this challenge is particularly worrying.

‘Staying with’ a troubling reality

At the beginning of this research project, one of the envisaged outputs was the formulation of recommendations or suggestions for future policy enhancement. However, sitting with the troubling realisation that through presumptions of fixability, our own research was at risk of contributing to the reification of such circular narratives in the field, we were inspired by the call to ‘stay with the trouble’, that is, to disinvest ourselves from the need to find solutions, and to sit instead with the discomfort of irreducible complexities that characterise the current Australian (and worldwide) eduscape.

This decision led us to use our Queensland data as a case study enabling us to illustrate what we have come to term the “rippling circularities” of the deeply entrenched challenges facing WL education. Here, we offer a number of questions for researchers, practitioners and policy makers to open up to new, generative conversations:

  • How may our practices and research foci be complicitly contributing to the perpetuation of various rippling circularities?
  • How may our research help change these narratives to break free from these silos?
  • What are our ethical responsibilities (within languages and education departments) in researching these issues in a way that can open up networks and honest conversations across sectors to effect an impact on policy?
  • How can language educators and staff in positions of leadership in primary and secondary schools contribute to these conversations?

Acknowledging our roles and responsibilities in the perpetuation of these cycles is but a first step in engaging productively with the possibilities of leveraging these circularities. 

From left to right:

Adriana R. Díaz is Senior Lecturer in the Spanish and Latin American Studies Program at The University of Queensland’s School of Languages and Cultures. Her research centres on learning more about how insights from critical pedagogy and decolonial critique can help us un/re-learn the ways in which we engage with languages education. She is author of Developing Critical Languaculture Pedagogies in Higher Education: Theory and Practice (2013, Multilingual Matters), co-editor (with Maria Dasli) of The Critical Turn in Language and Intercultural Communication Pedagogy (2017, Routledge) and co-author (with Chantal Crozet) of Tertiary Language Teacher-Researchers Between Ethics and Politics – Silent Voices, Unseized Spaces (2020, Routledge).

Marisa Cordella is Associate Professor in Spanish linguistics at The University of Queensland’s School of Languages and Cultures. She holds a PhD in Linguistics from Monash University, Australia. Her research expertise and postgraduate supervision lie primarily in the field of discourse analysis: medical communication, intercultural and intergenerational communication, ageing across cultures, language education and translation studies. She has published widely in peer-reviewed journals, authored book chapters and two books on medical discourse (one sole and one co-authored), and recently published a co-edited book on intergenerational and intercultural communication.

Naomi Fillmore is a PhD candidate and Research Assistant at The University of Queensland’s School of Languages and Cultures. She is a language and education researcher and practitioner, with experience spanning government, non-government, and academic organisations. Her research focuses on the role of language in education policy, programming, and assessment in the early years. She has published in several edited volumes, including the Annual Review of Comparative and International Education.

Politicisation of teaching Chinese language in Australian classrooms today

In a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly embroiled in an atmosphere of China scepticism. Diplomatic tensions between Australia and China have arisen in the past largely due to political and trade disagreements, but the provision of Chinese language programs in Australian schools has also ignited controversy.

Australia’s education agendas for the 21st century have focused on supporting Australian school students to become future global citizens with the skills and capabilities to live, work and engage in the international community, particularly with Australia’s neighbours. Proficiency in an Asian language has been seen as a key skill to achieve this goal. However, while policy promotes the study of Chinese as a ‘language for the future’, such motives are readily cast aside in times of diplomatic crisis when the ‘enigma’ of China and speakers of the Chinese language are seen as a threat.

The politicisation of Chinese language study in Australia promotes the idea that learning Chinese is useful to Australians for purely practical economic reasons, such as being able to conduct business or trade.  This has particular implications for Languages teaching and learning, as it reduces multilingualism and its associated benefits—intercultural competence, literacy, language awareness and critical thinking—to a strategic resource.

Within the broader Languages education debates in Australia, Chinese stands out because of its unique place in Australian society and education. After English, Chinese is the language most spoken at home, and is one of the most widely taught languages in Australian schools. However, students who are not from Chinese heritage backgrounds rarely achieve high proficiency; and Chinese is considered a ‘difficult’ language compared to European languages, which are linguistically closer to English. The perceived language advantage of Chinese-heritage students also has a demotivating effect.

Our research

In a recent study, we explored how debates in the media and conversations among language teachers reflect the contentions surrounding Chinese language learning and Australia’s multicultural identity. We examined a selection of Australian media articles on Chinese language education published between 2012 and 2017, and conducted interviews with teachers of Asian languages in 2015 and 2016. We found a strong discrepancy between advocacy for Chinese language instruction as key to Australia’s economic future, and media and public debates that portray Chinese as ‘too difficult and too foreign to learn’. Such debates also position learning Chinese as linked to the dissemination of Chinese government propaganda, and as undermining Australia’s Anglo-European and anglophone identity.

We identified four main themes:

  • Chinese is the ‘language of the future’ for Australians
  • Chinese taught in Confucius Classrooms in Australia is suspicious
  • Chinese culture and language are too foreign and difficult for Australians to master
  • Uneasiness or ambivalence in Australia towards teaching and learning Chinese

Chinese is the ‘language of the future’

Eleven of the twenty-three media articles selected for our study reflected the Asian Century discourse, which heralds China as the ‘rising’ economic and geopolitical power. Chinese education programs were often described as ‘cutting edge’: statements such as ‘bilingual first in schools’ and ‘preschool language program rolled out’ suggest that bilingual language programs are a new phenomenon, rather than a long-established tradition in Australia.

Several articles also seemed to suggest that language education was less about language learning than about technological innovation: students would be able to form ‘virtual relationships’ with ‘digital sister schools’ ‘with the help of an innovative program’. The notion of using technology to connect with ‘real’ Chinese people in mainland China reinforces the perception that the purpose of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’, outside Australia. This renders invisible the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own back yard’.

Chinese and Confucius Classrooms: The language of suspicion

An interesting if unsurprising finding—given the controversy of China’s investment in ‘cultural projection to the world’—was the significant number of articles critical of the role of Confucius Classrooms in Chinese language programs. Headings such as ‘Schools paid $10,000 to teach Chinese, and ‘China sends teachers to Palmerston’,  position China as the sole driver of such programs, despite the Australian government’s policy focus on developing language proficiency in Chinese. Statements in the same article, such as ‘the Territory will soon be speaking Chinese if the NT [Northern Territory] Government gets its way’ reveal an underlying hostility towards the arrival of ‘twenty Chinese teachers set to be calling the Northern Territory home’. In this way, Chinese language and culture are politicised as threats to Australian national identity—a view that is reinforced and manifested by a hierarchical view of languages. An Australian company manager, interviewed by the Gold Coast Bulletin (FIRST joband where are you now? 24/10/2016) comments:

The school curriculum is too crowded …. People often suggest learning Chinese. I don’t believe Chinese is essential as all Chinese students learn English … however, basic Chinese skills assist in business etiquette and overcoming the cultural barrier.

So, while language and cultural knowledge are useful skills, English-speaking Australians only need to acquire ‘survival Chinese’ in order to overcome cultural barriers. But on the other hand, Chinese speakers are assumed (and expected) to have a high level of communicative proficiency in English. Chinese may be the ‘language of the future’ and worthwhile engaging with—but not to the extent of attaining high linguistic proficiency and a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and society. This creates a cycle of ‘privilege and parochialism’ for the English-dominant speaker.

‘It’s too foreign’

Similar concerns were expressed by the Languages teachers we interviewed. ‘Pam’, Head of Languages and a teacher of Japanese at a Catholic secondary school in metropolitan Melbourne, comments on the ‘usefulness’ of studying Chinese:

I think […] that as a society we’ve always viewed Japanese with a sense of prestige. Kids like the animated cartoons, feel like there’s things they can really relate to. Now, Chinese hasn’t got that.

Although popular culture can support interest in language learning, it doesn’t occur as often as people believe. Pam’s comment that Chinese language lacks cultural aspects that Australian students can relate to suggests that China continues to be seen as too far removed from ‘Australian’ culture. ‘Daniel’, Head of Department and teacher of Chinese at an independent K–12 college in Melbourne, echoes this sentiment:

I mean it’s as basic as [Chinese] textbook layout. At the moment it doesn’t feel Western. It feels, just even opening the book, quality of the pages, fonts […] kids look at it and go, ‘This looks really foreign.’

According to Daniel, a student’s very first classroom encounter with Chinese can be deeply alienating. A resource as simple as a textbook can exemplify a perceived linguistic and cultural chasm between ‘East and West’.

Uneasiness or ambivalence in Australia towards teaching and learning Chinese

Both advocates and critics of Chinese language education in Australia draw on arguments around economic proximity and cultural distance that are difficult to reconcile. This uneasiness was reflected in stories of the everyday professional interactions involving languages teachers of both Australian and Chinese descent. Pam and Daniel discussed their involvement as Heads of Languages in staffing, recruitment and employment of Languages teachers:

For Chinese by far, we have too many native speakers, and they’re all teaching because they can speak the language. Our industry for Chinese is dominated by native speakers up to 99 per cent.

I feel like in the past, we’ve really just gone: ‘Well, you can speak the language, come and teach here.’ And it’s almost like: You don’t do that with English teachers. How did you just realise that that doesn’t work for other languages? (Daniel)

Daniel is commenting on the widespread assumption that teaching one’s first language is ‘easy’; as something that is ‘innate’, it is thought to require little effort or formal study. It is a ‘springboard’ for a teaching career in Australia, as demonstrated by the high proportion of native Chinese language teachers. Daniel suggests that his school had not questioned this assumption in the past; it had recruited Chinese language teachers mainly based on their ability to speak the language, a practice that changed when it was realised that teachers of other languages were not recruited in this way. However, a great deal of irony is apparent when such recruitment practices for Chinese versus English language teachers are considered, as many native English speakers are employed overseas today as English language teachers based mostly on their ability to speak English as a first language.

Our research reflects the well-documented themes in media and teacher discourses in Australia around representations of Chinese language education: utilitarian arguments for Chinese language learning, the exoticising of the cultural and linguistic ‘other’ and a deep-rooted ambivalence towards China and speakers of Chinese.

If the intention of policy is to position Chinese as the ‘language of the future’ and worthy of study, it requires progressive politics, policy and education systems to recognise that ‘while multilingualism is laudatory, the means by which one becomes multilingual also matter’. Language learning is valuable for a broad range of reasons, including the economic, political, societal, intercultural and interpersonal.

In light of the current Australia–China tensions, re-embracing relationships in the Asia- Pacific that move beyond binary Australia–Asia relationships of ‘us versus them’ could be crucial for stabilising the region. This will require a more critical engagement with Australia’s multicultural identity, and consideration of how our diversity could be reflected more comprehensively. It will also raise new questions about how Australia communicates with its Asian neighbours.

For those who want more – Neilsen, R. & Weinmann, M. (2019). Repositioning teacher identities: Beyond binaries of Self and Other. The Australian Educational Researcher.

ABC news Chinese, Indonesian language teachers get creative bringing Asia to regional Australia

Dr Michiko Weinmann is a senior lecturer in Languages Education, and Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL) at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has researched and published on multilingual education, Asia literacy, and teacher mobility. Michiko curates the Languages resources website: Her forthcoming co-authored book (with Dr Rebecca Cairns, Deakin University) ‘Rethinking Asia-related Curriculum’ will be published by Routledge in 2021. Michiko is on Twitter at @MichikoWeinmann

Dr Rod Neilsen is a senior lecturer in TESOL at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has worked as an English teacher and teacher educator on five continents. He has conducted research into pre-service and in-service teacher mobility and multilingual approaches to language learning. Rod is the Chief Editor of the Australian journal, TESOL in Context.

Sophia Slavich is a Chinese and EAL/D language teacher with experience in primary, secondary and tertiary levels. She conducted research in language education policy as part of her Masters of Teaching degree at Deakin University, Melbourne. Sophia is an advocate for linguistic diversity and the worldviews it represents. She currently teaches Chinese at Stawell Primary School, Victoria and works as an instructional coach for beginning teachers with the Teach for Australia program.

We also have a book chapter to be published in 2021 -Weinmann, M., Slavich, S. & Neilsen R. (forthcoming 2021). ‘Multiculturalism and the “broken” discourses of Chinese language education’, In: Halse, C. & Kennedy, K. (eds.). The future of multiculturalism in turbulent times. Asia-Europe Education Dialogue series, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.