Interview - 2GB with Ben Fordham Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) trial

  • Assistant Minister for Education

2GB – Ben Fordham
Tue 16/09/2014
SUBJECT:  Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) trial

BEN FORDHAM: The Federal Government wants more of us speaking a second language and to do that, they are targeting people at a younger age than ever before.

Once upon a time, learning a second language was something that happened in high school. Then we started teaching children in primary school and now, well it's children as young as three or four being taught a second language in preschool.

And the new focus won't teach them in a traditional way; instead, children are going to be given educational apps that will be played on tablet devices. Yes, it's 2014, people. And children will use these apps to learn languages like French, Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic; and there is a $9.8 million pilot program that is being launched by the Federal Government. It will be available in 40 different preschools from next year.  And it's all part of an initiative to make more Aussie children bilingual.

Sussan Ley is the Assistant Education Minister; she's on the line. Minister, good afternoon.

SUSSAN LEY: G'day Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: What language do you speak, apart from English?

SUSSAN LEY: An appalling schoolgirl French. I grew up in the Middle East and my father is a fluent Arabic speaker, but because I went to an English speaking school over there, I actually never learned Arabic. And I wander round with some Arabic flashcards on my iPad, just to see how this might work for me, and I'm a good example of the fact that you just can't pick it up in your middle years and that's why preschool and learning when you're young is so important.

BEN FORDHAM: Sorry for the sidestep for a moment, but I'm fascinated. Where did you grow up in the Middle East?

SUSSAN LEY: The Emirates. I went to the Dubai English Speaking School...


SUSSAN LEY: ... and then went - lived in Abu Dhabi, Al-Ain and Sharjah, which are, yes, pretty much covered them all - and Doha, in Qatar.

BEN FORDHAM: Alright. So, and you learned some French?

SUSSAN LEY: I learned some French in an English boarding school, which was probably done in a very old-fashioned way and although France is just across the channel, we never actually visited, so I never got that immersion experience which is so important; actually listening to the language being spoken all around you. But everyone who's learned a language knows, if you learn it early, you remember so much more.

BEN FORDHAM: Look, there are so many opportunities that open up to people once they have that second language. I'm one of these simpletons who - I mean, I did a little bit of Latin in school, a little bit of French and I can say a few things here and there but I don't have a second language. But I am immensely jealous of anyone who does. I mean, it's a great string to the bow, isn't it?

SUSSAN LEY: It is. Now, in the 1960s, 40 per cent of our Year 12 students were graduating with a foreign language. Now, it's 12 per cent. So, that's quite a shocking - well, it's quite a shocking illustration of why, as the need for speaking a foreign language to make your way in a global economy goes up, the actual numbers of students studying is going down and I think this will start to address that trend.

BEN FORDHAM: How important is it? I mean, is it one of these luxuries? I mean, in the 1960s, if it was 40 per cent of people leaving school with a second language and now it's only 12 per cent; is that an indication that maybe it is seen as a bit of a luxury, to be able to learn another language where most people are focused on being able to add up, being able to subtract and being able to communicate, being able to write?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I don't know if it's so much of a luxury; I mean, remember that the teaching of languages in schools is not hugely resource-intensive, particularly in the digital economy, where you've got the languages on the end of the computer, the teacher, if you like, doesn't have to be completely fluent in it. I think it's a matter of students not choosing to study.

So, often a school will say: we're offering Japanese, we've had five students put their hands up, we can't run the course. And Japanese is maybe on the same stream as geography and students just naturally don't choose the language. That's because many students see it as something that they can't do, that they don't have the ability to do and the real reason is, it's really difficult to take up in the later years of primary school and early high school, but it's not difficult at all to do when you're four years old.

BEN FORDHAM: I've got a friend of mine who insisted that his two sons learn foreign languages, and in particular, he made them learn Asian languages. One of them has got a brilliant career in Japan. He spends his entire time now as a middle-man, if you like, between Western businesspeople and also Japanese businesspeople and not only just on the language side as a translator, but also someone who is able to organise things, socialise and do this kind of thing and he is a bloke who is in huge demand in Japan for this very reason. He's able to bring something to the table and he also comes with an experience of outside Japan.

SUSSAN LEY: Mm. And how fantastic is that? And look, one in five Australians doesn't speak English at home or doesn't speak English as their first language at home. So, even if you never leave the country, but your business deals with people from overseas, then it's a huge advantage to you. So, you get a business delegation from Indonesia, or Japan, or China, and you step up and you can talk to them and that gives you credibility that you wouldn't otherwise have.

Look, that's just one example. There are so many. There's a whole range of reasons why we just need to increase the number of students studying foreign languages. If we weren't an island continent, if we were joined up to other countries, this would be happening much more than it is.

BEN FORDHAM: Alright. Not everyone's a believer, I want to quickly bring in John, who's just called in.

John, go right ahead.

CALLER JOHN: I think what the Minister’s saying is just utter rubbish. We live in Australia, we speak English, we speak the international language. I learned French at school; it’s a complete waste of time. I’ve been to Canada and I’ve been to France and what I learned in school didn’t do me any good. The rest of the world is learning English, so – you used an example there of China, well there’s two-hundred-and-something dialects in Chinese. So, we should say, well, we’ll learn Chinese; which dialect are we going to learn? All the trade around the world, everything’s all done in English.

BEN FORDHAM: Minister, what do you say about that?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, with great respect John, I don’t think everything is done in English and I think that understanding another language gives you an entre into doing business in that country that you just wouldn’t otherwise have. Yes, every dialect in China is different, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make yourself understood across the different dialects and it’s the same with Arabic. Arabic’s spoken in different – different script and accents, if you like, across the Middle East, but you can learn one, you can communicate with all.

And it’s – I think it’s a little bit arrogant of us as a country to say: look, everyone who wants to deal with us should learn English; because we’re dealing with them and it’s a competitive world out there and they don’t have to trade with us. Every edge we can bring to that equation is going to give us an advantage.

BEN FORDHAM: We don’t speak English anyway, we speak Australian.

SUSSAN LEY: Exactly [laughs].

BEN FORDHAM: You know you’re not going to get off the line without giving us a little bit of schoolgirl French.

SUSSAN LEY: Well I could just say au revior?

BEN FORDHAM: [Laughs] I’ll let you get away with it. Good to talk to you, Minister.

SUSSAN LEY: Thanks, Ben.

BEN FORDHAM: Sussan Ley, the Assistant Education Minister.

What do you make of that? Three years of age, being taught a second language? 13 1873; I’d be proud if my child was learning a second language at three years of age and I’ve met some people, some children who know three or four languages. Now, we’ve also had a discussion with an education expert before on the program, who’s explained that learning a second language is not just about learning that other language, it’s also about turning on another part of your brain. Another department in your head that allows you to excel even in your English studies and in all parts of learning, because you are exercising that part of the brain. How many languages can you speak?


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