Tilting at Windmills on Foreign Languages

For more years than I care to remember our attempts to develop systemically successful foreign language programs in our schools has been embarrassingly unsuccessful. Of course we are not alone in this regard, many other English speaking countries have had limited success, at best, in creating bilingual communities. Ironically, it is those nations that have sought to develop English as their second language that appear to have been more successful.

The Bailleau Victorian Government has flagged its intent to create a bilingual State via a school-based approach that would have as its core all students in Years P-10 immersed in bilingual programs for 7.5 hours per week including the subjects of mathematics and science. Schools would be at liberty to select the foreign language best suited for their needs with funds being set aside to encourage teachers to retrain as language teachers and for schools to embark on pilot programs as soon as possible.

This is clearly one of the most ambitious of foreign language study initiatives proposed for Victorian schools ever. Will it work?

It would be great for us all if it did and we should be barracking hard in support of the idea. Is that indeed enough? Sadly not! If we have learnt from the lessons of our past failures then perhaps we stand a chance, but have we?

Firstly, we have never had anywhere near enough skilled foreign language teachers in our ranks to deliver even 2.5 hours foreign language instruction per week to all students in years P-6, let alone 7.5 hours per week in whole school bilingual program at any more than a handful of schools. What’s in the new approach that will change that? Certainly not the truck loads of money needed to train foreign language teachers on such a scale.

Mathematics and science are not always the strongest taught subjects systemically in primary schools. That’s partly because we attract far more teachers with a humanities academic background in the first place. How then will we find it easier to attract bilingually fluent teachers who also happen to be highly skilled teachers of mathematics and science? We could do worse than search for the eternally elusive magic wand.

Biting off more than we can chew has been a chronic failing of our foreign language programs of recent times. Modesty of aim has not been a feature. Unlike many other countries that restrict their foreign language programs to one or two options, we have at least seven options available to us. In simple language readily understood, that’s called “spreading ourselves too thin.”

It certainly doesn’t help when our first language, English, happens to be the predominant foreign language of choice of other countries. Nonetheless, the logically sensible argument that we would be better off as a notion if we were more literate in foreign languages does not give us the luxury of tilting at windmills. That remains the domain of Don Quixote.

Henry Grossek
Principal, Berwick Lodge Primary School

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