The perils and pressures on teaching world languages

By Adriana Díaz, Marisa Cordella and Naomi Fillmore

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.

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