In a recent television panel discussion on the subject of foreign languages, the speakers appeared reasonably well-educated and had travelled the world, some as journalists and others in business capacities. However, a profound lack of understanding of what foreign language study means to young learners was clearly apparent.
One member of the panel lamented the fact that the number of students learning Latin in Australian schools was greater than that of those learning Chinese. Another speaker added that perhaps the schools which offered Latin subscribed to the view that one could do business with Roman ghosts!
Perhaps the biggest challenge for language education in Australia is our attitude towards learning languages.
Here is a list of what we at Trinity believe are not the chief reasons for including foreign languages in the Australian curriculum:
- Learning another language does not represent a preparation for trade negotiations in other languages.
- It is not intended merely for potential diplomats and it is not designed specifically to assist our future scientists and engineers in understanding the latest research written in a foreign language.
- It most certainly is not a means of avoiding hard work at school.
It may be that our students will one day be able, after years of tertiary study, to use their foreign language skills to clinch a business deal in China, but that should be viewed as a wonderful bonus, not the principal goal.
Learning a foreign language is the single most important component of a child’s education after literacy and numeracy in his native tongue. It taxes every skill a young learner has: the ability to listen and concentrate, the capacity and willingness to mimic sounds and memorise units of meaning, and in some cases, such as Chinese, the demands go beyond a mere rearrangement of the Roman alphabet to the need to master logograms which challenge even native speakers of the language. And this is just the start!
Offering students the opportunity to learn a foreign language represents a constant challenge and never permits the luxury of resting on one’s laurels. The demands of a foreign language course do not, however, represent insurmountable obstacles. They are the antithesis of mere process education: students are expected to learn facts, commit structures to memory and practise what they learn regularly, long after they have been tested on the material in a formal assessment task. Learning another language means ongoing dialogue with peers and especially with the teacher, who in this situation cannot just be a facilitator.
The study of languages is relevant for boys because to succeed, the learner needs motivation, dedication, passion, focus and a refusal to capitulate. Most of all it is about accepting that the learning will never end, that the course will never be completed, and that it will never be easy. Is anything truly worthwhile easy to achieve?
The journey is long and demanding, but it should be a joyous one, and the rewards are immense. For some, the ultimate goal is reading literature and studying history using texts written in a language other than one’s own. For others it is about truly appreciating the words of a rousing opera. And then there are those for whom the important things are communicating with the locals in other countries, making friends abroad and appreciating other cultures through the languages of those cultures.
Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen. (Those who not know foreign languages know nothing about their own) - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe