Languages Learning

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.

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

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.