Opening address at the Adelaide Language Festival

Speech
  • Minister for Education
  • Leader of the House

Introduction

It’s a pleasure to join you to open this festival, at my alma mater, and here in my home city of Adelaide.

Congratulations to everyone involved in organising and hosting this exciting event.

This university splendidly offers the full suite of language education from Bachelor degrees, a Diploma in Languages, and major, minor or elective study.

I must acknowledge two of the University’s outstanding scholars:

• Professor Anderson who among other interests, has joined the Government’s New Colombo Plan Reference Group having done an enormous amount in support of the development of this plan.
 
• Professor Bebbington, who is well-known for his valuable and ongoing contribution to the higher education debate in Australia.
Now, while this is the first Adelaide Language Festival, I have no doubt it will not be the last.

I congratulate you on the impressive international speaker list for this festival.

The exceptional and diverse programme of speakers contributing their expertise today and tomorrow suggests that this forum is satisfying an ongoing need for discussion about the place of languages in our society.

My view is that Australia has reached a very low point in our engagement with languages other than English.

We are in the strange position of being what I might describe as a two-speed society in terms of languages.

Australia is one of the most successful culturally diverse societies in the world, yet there is a low uptake in language education.

The Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities has described this predicament as a “persistent monolingual mindset”.

Let me assure you that the Coalition Government is an outward looking government, determinedly seeking to engage internationally.

So as a nation, we need to unite these perspectives so that we fully comprehend our place in the Asia-Pacific region and engage confidently on the global stage supported by a workforce and society that is competent in a range of languages.

I believe that to achieve this, we need no less than a national revival of language education.

I noted with concern the recent comments of Nicola Wakefield Evans, a board member of several leading Australian companies, who recently spoke of her worry about the economic impact on Australia and on the job prospects of our graduates from the inadequate study of languages, and especially Asian languages. She rightly urged faster action by all concerned to rectify this worrying situation.

This means academics, teachers, business and political leaders discussing how we can work together to turn around our woeful current position.

That’s why this festival is vital.

We need this forum and many others like it, to continually establish the value of language studies and provide reminders of why it is important.

With the distinguished participants involved, I know there will be valuable progress in language education and research during the presentations and discussions throughout this festival.


The Government’s agenda for languages education

With these thoughts in mind, I will share some of the Government’s plans for reviving language study in this country.

I signalled our intentions during last year’s election campaign with the commitment to have 40 per cent of Year 12 students studying a foreign or classical language within a decade. 
And I spoke recently at Flinders University on our education and research collaboration with Indonesia, and the importance of strengthening our links with Indonesia and other Asian countries.

I noted the Government’s ambitious goals for promoting language study, including the study of Asian languages, and how this would open the way for stronger business and social partnerships internationally.

Today, I would like to expand on how we can support these intercultural and economic partnerships by improving our language capabilities in this country, as part of what I intend to be a continuing series of explorations on this important topic in the months and years ahead.


Early childhood and the Early Learning Languages Australia trial

One of the problems with language learning in Australia has been the piece-meal approach.

There are excellent initiatives underway, but often each occurs in isolation.

That’s why we are aiming at what I might call a “cradle to grave” approach, fostering excellence in opportunities at different life stages, with the intention that there is a seamless transition for people moving from one language learning opportunity to the next.

We know that the ability to learn a new language is greatest in a child’s early years, and early exposure to language learning is an important platform for encouraging this learning in the later years of education.

So in the recent Budget, we delivered on our election commitment for a one-year trial of online foreign language learning for children in preschool programmes.

The trial is called Early Learning Languages Australia – or ELLA – with $9.8 million provided in the recent Budget.

We will assess the effectiveness of online language learning for children in preschool programmes in a range of settings.

It’s anticipated that up to 40 providers of pre-school programmes across Australia will participate in the trial in 2015, with children studying one language for the calendar year through the online programme.

The languages are yet to be finalised, but will reflect the mix of Australia’s major trading partners, and languages other than English spoken in Australia and globally, and also those in the National Curriculum.

Children will have the opportunity to develop recognition of the different sounds and concepts of a foreign language, with the possibility of understanding and reproducing them in a natural medium through games-based learning.

The significance of this trial should not be underestimated.

Starting foreign language exposure in preschool means that a child’s language learning can take place over a longer period.

This approach supports the take-up of foreign language learning as part of a life-long continuum, starting in preschool and continuing to secondary school, perhaps to university, and beyond.

I was pleased to see in the response to the Budget from the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations that they considered this project to be “a vital step in the right direction”.


The 40 per cent target in school education

As I’ve mentioned, the school education policy the Coalition took to the last election set a target for 40 per cent of Year 12 students to be studying a foreign or classical language within a decade.

It is simply not acceptable that the teaching of foreign and classical languages in Australian schools has been in a long decline.

The proportion of Year 12 students studying a language other than English has dropped from about 40 per cent in the 1960s to around 11 per cent today.

China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and of course we celebrate the fact that many Australians have Chinese heritage.

Yet across Australia there are just a small number of Year 12 Mandarin students who aren’t of Chinese heritage.

Similarly, Japan, Indonesia and Korea are of importance to us economically and as our neighbours, yet there is a low prevalence of these languages being taught in schools.

This is of concern.

Just as literacy in one’s native language is a foundation skill which leads to greater choice and opportunities, learning another language is a foundation skill for taking part in our global economy.

I recognise the 40 per cent target is ambitious, and fully acknowledge the vital role of the states and territories in achieving it, but as a Government, we see the need for national leadership on this issue.

We need to set stretch targets to get people engaged and motivated, and moving in the right direction.

 

National languages curriculum

To achieve this goal, we are prioritising the development of the national languages curriculum for thirteen foreign languages for study in mainstream schools by 2015.[2]

As well as new funding to develop Hindi and Turkish, curricula will also be developed for the historically significant languages of Classical Greek and Latin, and for AUSLAN, enabling greater choice and diversity for students.

The Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations has commented further that the addition of these languages “signals the recognition of the importance of languages education across a broad range of languages”.

We’ve also engaged the Asia Education Foundation to work with stakeholders to conduct research into ways to encourage more secondary students to continue foreign language education in Years 11 and 12.


Teacher training

Today, I want also to focus on higher education because this is where the rubber hits the road in terms of Australia seizing the opportunities available in our region and beyond.

Each year a new cohort of students graduates from higher education and we have to ask ourselves if they are ready to participate in our dynamic regional and global economies.

Let’s not dwell on the answer to this question.

Rather, let’s discuss the solution.

Clearly, it’s vital that a student has a positive school experience if they are to make that seamless transition we seek in taking up language training in higher education.

That’s why we are working to improve our teacher training courses to put a focus back on languages, with the high-level Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group led by Professor Greg Craven currently considering these issues.

Among other matters, I have asked the Advisory Group to focus on foreign languages education, so teachers of these subjects have sufficient depth of content knowledge and relevant pedagogical expertise.

There’s also merit in the ideas of fast-tracking language graduates into teacher training courses, or universities considering making the prior study of languages an entry requirement for particular courses.

 

Teach for Australia and the Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowships

The existing Teach for Australia programme fast tracks high calibre non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged secondary schools.

This can be an effective way of attracting high-quality entrants into the teaching profession, and also responding to workforce shortages in areas such as foreign language teachers.

We are currently negotiating a new contract that will include the target that Teach for Australia aim for 40 per cent of participants recruited into the programme to specialise in foreign languages.

Finally on teacher professional development, I will also draw your attention to the Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowships that offer language teachers a three-week immersion programme in their language home country.


Expanding the demand driven system

I believe the higher education reforms announced in the Budget are no less than a generational recasting of the sector.

We are placing the entire sector — not just universities — on a footing so institutions have the necessary flexibility to pursue excellence, and offer choice and diversity for students.

This package:

• supports excellence and innovation
• expands opportunities for students in the regions and cities
• establishes a sustainable HECS system, and
• overall, establishes a sustainable higher education system.

We are working from a belief that we must improve the quality of Australian higher education to ensure its international competitiveness and long-term sustainability.
 
The reforms also provide a substantial boost for language learning in this country.

You’ll be aware of the recent review of the demand driven funding system by David Kemp and Andrew Norton, that recommended the Government extend Commonwealth funding to sub-bachelor courses, including diplomas of languages.

Their report also recommended extending the demand driven system to non-university higher education providers.

The Government accepted these recommendations.

Indeed, shortly after becoming Minister, I provided encouragement to universities offering the opportunity to study a language alongside their substantive qualification, by allocating additional sub-bachelor places in these courses.

In the Budget, we announced that from 2016 the demand driven funding system will be expanded to include subsidised student places in all diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses offered by accredited higher education institutions.

This means universities will be able to expand their diploma of language programmes on the basis of student demand.

We have seen in recent years how opening up demand has increased student take-up of courses.

Now the way will be open for universities to encourage more students to pursue a diploma of languages alongside their degree.

We estimate that freeing up places in sub-bachelor courses will create around 35,000 additional student places per year by 2018, a substantial boost to choice and opportunity for students across Australia.

Sub-bachelor courses are also, of course, important pathways programmes, providing opportunities for students to develop the necessary academic skills required to successfully undertake further university study.

Lifting the restriction on the number of Commonwealth subsidies for diplomas, advanced diploma and associate degree courses gives opportunities to students who need this additional support.

The extension of Commonwealth support to students in non-university higher education institutions – which Denise Bradley and now Kemp and Norton have all recommended - builds on the demand driven funding arrangements that currently apply only to public universities.

This will create a system that meets the diverse needs of students, while also improving the quality and integrity of Australian higher education.

It will benefit students not only because they will have the cost of their study subsidised by the Government, but also institutions will have to compete for students, and this will focus their attention on quality.

This Government recognises that non-university higher education institutions make an important contribution to the diversity of our higher education system, offering more opportunities and choice for students.

By allowing non-university higher education providers access to the demand driven system the Government will support them in choosing the type of education that suits them most.

This will create a stronger and fairer Australian higher education system.

With many language courses provided in the private higher education system, there’s no question that opening opportunities for students to study through these providers will be good for languages education and boost the quality and appropriateness of the opportunities available to students.

I was pleased to see Professor John Hajek of the University of Melbourne enter this debate recently.

Professor Hajek is also President of the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities.

Speaking just before the Budget was released, he is quoted as saying that:
“stand-alone subsidised diplomas could attract fresh recruits to language courses and give universities an incentive to open new programs.”
He also said “the ability to supply student demand with uncapped diplomas might encourage some institutions to bring in new language programs, or expand existing ones”.[3]

I must note that the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities is an exciting development in the revival of language education and research in this country, which I wholeheartedly support.

I am drawn to their ideas for supporting and extending sector cooperation such as:

• sharing present and future good practice across Australian universities
• offering support on models of delivery to institutions struggling to keep languages afloat, and
• improving the professional development of early-career and mid-career academics.


New Colombo Plan

We have also launched our New Colombo Plan — described by the Prime Minister as a signature initiative of this Government — offering scholarships and mobility grants to undergraduate students for study and internships or mentorships in the Asia-Pacific region.

The $100 million New Colombo Plan provides excellent opportunities for students to gain exposure to foreign languages and cultures in educational and professional settings.

The pilot phase of the programme has commenced, already supporting Australian undergraduate students going to four destinations: Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore.

Other regional partners will be invited to participate when the full programme is implemented next year.

As part of the New Colombo Plan, there is a scholarship programme open to Australian undergraduates who have completed one academic year of study.

There’s also a mobility programme with the pilot initially focusing on supporting undergraduate students enrolled at Australian universities to study and undertake internships and short-term study in our region.

The New Colombo Plan will be linking future leaders of Australia and the region and helping to enhance Australia’s ongoing education and business linkages in the region.

To put this in context, I will quote Professor Anderson who has said of this University:

“We want to give as many students as we can an international experience. It adds a breadth of skill and knowledge and a sense of global citizenship that we want to foster in all our graduates.
To this end, we have set ambitious targets for study abroad - by 2023 we aim for 30 per cent of our students to have had an international experience. This will be strengthened considerably with the New Colombo Plan."

These comments are highly relevant to my earlier remarks about Australia being a two-speed society in terms of languages.

If we can give our students international experiences, as this University is doing and as we are fostering under the New Colombo Plan, we will overcome the “monolingual mindset” through students who only speak one language being shaken out of their complacency when they see that being proficient in another language is good for their prospects.


Conclusion

Let me conclude by reflecting that we all use language in many different ways.

It is a means of communication, a vital part of our cultural identity, and a source of sheer pleasure for many who explore its highways and by-ways.

Written and spoken language is also a foundation skill that gives people choices and opportunities in how they live and work.

Language is essential for citizens to be active in our democracy and it oils the wheels of global diplomacy and trade.

Capability in foreign languages is no less than a global passport for individuals and our nation, seeking to seize the opportunities of our place and time in the Asia Pacific region and the wider world in the second decade of this century.

That is why we need a national revival in languages education, and I have no doubt that the deliberations at this festival will make a worthwhile contribution in building the momentum we need to revive language education in our society.

It is my great pleasure to formally declare the Adelaide Languages Festival open, and I wish you well with your discussions.

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