Why is Australia condemning language education to insignificance?

By Katharina Bense

Languages are not considered important in Australia. This general attitude towards language learning is not only evident in the uptake of foreign languages by students in schools and the provision of foreign languages as outlined in current curriculum policies, but is also noticeable in the everyday teaching and learning in Australian language classrooms.

Since May 2014, the  Australian Curriculum for Languages  has been available for implementation. It is a great step forward to have a national curriculum for foreign language education.

But I don’t think it goes far enough. The time and importance allocated to language learning within the Australian curriculum are just not good enough. We compare badly to other countries. For instance, the national curriculum is designed as a Foundation to Year 10 program. In contrast, students in other OECD countries continue to study one or more foreign languages for another two years until to the end of Year 12.

Also, the time assigned to languages in relation to the total teaching time per year is still substantially less than in other countries. Students in Australia will spend only half as much time on language learning as most students in other OECD countries.

Finally, time allocations for languages within the Australian curriculum are only given as indications. So despite suggestions to make the study of a foreign language mandatory for all Australian students, the subject is – contrary to many other countries – still only optional. Ultimately, uptake and continuation of a foreign language is left to the students themselves.

Over the years several reports have found a number of other problems in language education policy in Australia. For instance there is a lack of specific language teacher courses at universities. As a result there is a massive shortage of qualified language teachers.

To go with this is a lack of professional development programs and network opportunities and overall an insufficient level of funding for languages in Australian schools.

So it is no surprise Australian tertiary education students feel discouraged to train as language teachers. Where is the career path? Why choose to be a language teacher when they have such a low status within our schools?

I believe it is the general attitude towards languages in the Australian public that is really the biggest challenge for language education. Language proficiency and multilingualism are simply not regarded as significant in Australia. The rest of the world is busy learning English so why should we bother with other languages? It is only natural, that this perception filters down to the students and influences their behaviour towards the subject.

I won’t go into the benefits of knowing how to speak in another language here, but as you probably know they are myriad, from personal and educational to economic and professional. The jury is well and truly out. We should be giving these benefits to our children.

I discovered some interesting insights into teaching and learning in Australian language classrooms in a recent study I carried out involving German migrant language teachers. The study was focused on the experiences of German migrant teachers in the Australian education system. However, it also provides some cross-cultural observations and new perspectives on how current language education policies and practices and the widespread attitude towards languages in society are impacting on the daily teaching and learning of languages in schools.

The German migrant teachers in the study were qualified and experienced teachers of modern foreign languages in Germany before they immigrated to Australia. When they started teaching German language in schools in Australia they were astonished to discover how low foreign languages as a subject area rates within the Australian curriculum. The teachers described how this different sense of worth affected their classroom management, teacher status at school and work conditions.

Despite its shortcomings the existence of our new national curriculum in languages is giving me hope. I am hoping it will spark more interest in language education within the wider Australian community and that the attitude of Australians towards multilingualism will change for the better.

Try thinking about this for a start: How important is it for the future of Australia for Australians to be able to communicate in more than one language?


Katharina Bense copy


Katharina Bense is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia in the Department of European Languages and Studies. In her research she focusses on issues of international teacher mobility and diversity in teaching. She is a qualified teacher from Germany with teaching experience in German language education in various Secondary and Tertiary institutions in Western Australia.



Katharina’s article “Languages aren’t as important here”: German migrant teachers’ experiences in Australian language classes was nominated for the Springer Best Paper Award 2014 so it is free online until January 15. Please find a link  HERE

3 thoughts on “Why is Australia condemning language education to insignificance?

  1. Katharina

    As an educator for some 40 years and someone who has travelled to other countries to view the teaching of a second language I unlike you have little hope for a successful languages program in our primary schools. Unless there is some major structural and collaboration work done between all levels of education we will continue to have a dysfunctional approach to languages in primary schools.

    The present educational environment for languages (long term planning, commitment from governments and education authorities, flexible resourcing, the coordination of language teachers, the training of language teachers, school flexibility to teach languages) is abysmal. We have a system based on one language that is rigidly assessed at school, state and national levels. Every other subject is forced into this assessment model.

    The teaching of languages in primary schools is unfortunately second rate and will remain so unless we have a major national campaign lead by pragmatic educators at the highest level.

    It is my belief that the teaching of languages in 30 minute or 60 minute blocks is dare I say it a waste of time. Schools need to introduce languages at the pre primary, letting it grow throughout the school and base their programs on an immersion model (spending at least 30% of the teaching of the AC in the second language).

    Language teachers must be first a very good generalist primary teacher who can teach all the learning areas but in a second language. We do not need stand alone language teachers going from class to class; we need excellent primary teachers who can teach all the learning areas in their own class.

    As you rightly point out the major problem we have in our schools is we do not have the number or the expertise in our language teachers. A great need of vision, planning and passion is needed to change this situation.

    If we can program this scenario schools will be able to develop cohorts of students who can speak and write and be immersed into a second language.

    At the present time I unfortunately see no education authority in Australia who has a workable, contextual plan for the future.

  2. Peter Moss says:

    I agree with the proposal that language teachers be teachers in the round so as to teach subjects etc in the language. I came to that conclusion when I was teaching a modern language to reception to year 7 children on a two days a week basis. This arrangement satisfied the functional requirement of having language lessons in the school, but was impossible to maintain since two days was not enough; it did not lead to real language use; and, unfortunately, it was, for the most part, affected by significant behaviour management issues. Quite a few of the children saw the lessons as distractions from the normal routine and acted accordingly; some openly questioned and mocked the language and the purpose of the lesson. Integration of all learning under the direction of a modern language other than English would be a challenging aim, but it would be real progress and a step towards higher cultural standards.

  3. Something should be done when it comes to language learning in Australia. Times are changing, people from all across the globe are maintaining contact through different platforms, and children should be given a better future for global expansion through better language learning. The overall disregard for language learning should be addressed and corrected.

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