Interview - ABC Alice Springs with Nadine Maloney - Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) trial


ABC Alice Springs - Nadine Maloney

SUBJECT/S: Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) trial.

NADINE MALONEY:          If you’ve got small kids, you might have already been astounded at the speed with which they automatically know how to use tablets or smartphones or computers, and sometimes even how to crack the passwords on them – very, very clever. It’s quite amazing, actually, to watch such young kids look so at home using these devices.

Well, there might be something in these devices – more than just entertainment, I mean. The Federal Government is funding a $10 million program to teach preschoolers foreign languages via apps. Sounds pretty interesting. How would this work? Let’s find out. Sussan Ley is the Assistant Minister for Education. Good morning.

SUSSAN LEY:         Good morning, Nadine.

NADINE MALONEY:          Why apps here and not more language teachers in schools?

SUSSAN LEY:         Well, there may be more [indistinct] teachers in big school, so to speak, but in preschool, which is the year before school and often in a child care or long day care setting, we’re introducing a trial that will used play-based learning, something familiar to children at that stage of their lives, and hopefully spark an interest in a foreign language, something that they can then continue with through primary and secondary school and into the world of work, because we’re in a globalised economy where the business opportunities that are presented to us as a country and you as an individual if you speak a foreign language are growing every day.

NADINE MALONEY:          Why so young? Why a trial in preschool?

SUSSAN LEY:         Well, if you’re introduced to languages in even early primary school, they can sometimes seem too difficult. I can remember at school a lot of the kids saying, “It’s just too hard to learn a language,” and yet if they had been introduced to speaking that language much earlier, their brains would have picked it up and they would be much more fluent.

And we all know, if we know children from bilingual households, at age – well, as they learn to talk, they talk to one parent in one language and another in another, and that just comes as naturally as breathing. So we know that we have the ability to pick up a language, the key is to start early and to keep that interest going. In the 1960s, 40 per cent of year 12 students in Australia were studying a language. Now it’s down to 12. So languages have dropped away, and that’s not a good thing.

NADINE MALONEY:          You mention the bilingual education. Why not more support for local Indigenous languages rather than going over – going for, you know, overseas and foreign languages?

SUSSAN LEY:         Well, I actually asked my department the question when they discussed the languages whether we could have Aboriginal, and they said, “It’s not a foreign language,” which is absolutely right. It’s very much an Australian language, and there does and there should exist initiatives for cultural and identity reasons for that to be captured and understood even by non-Indigenous Australians. I’m fully supportive of that. But this is about learning foreign languages and the fact that the languages that we’re trialling include the languages spoken by Australia’s major trading partners.

NADINE MALONEY:          So what languages are you talking about?

SUSSAN LEY:         French, which is pretty much universal in the world after English, Arabic, Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese. It’s actually interesting that of all the students doing Mandarin in year 12 that are not of a Chinese background, there’s only 300. So that’s not a good number either, when you consider that China is our major trading partner and likely to continue to be so.

NADINE MALONEY:          You know, it’s interesting. I do remember doing French in grade 8. I think I only did one semester. It was an option – and I just found it so hard that I switched the following semester to something else. But I do remember, you know, the very basics of it. So you think if you get them early – if you teach them – them early then it’s something that might stay with the kids as they get older?

SUSSAN LEY:         Yes. And this is part of introducing languages in schools as well. This is not just an isolated exercise. Because when you finish preschool, you obviously go to school and there will be, hopefully, more opportunities for you to continue the language that you had a bit of a look at in preschool and, therefore, it becomes something that automatically you take through your schooling career. Okay, you might not do it for a high school subject, but you will return to it or you can feel free to return to it at some point. So that if you get that job offer or employment opportunity overseas or, more importantly, onshore – I mean, you know, one in five Australians speaks a language other than English at home as their first language.

So when we’re talking to people who come to Australia, we – it’s certainly of great benefit for us to have those second languages as well.

NADINE MALONEY:          Do you speak any other languages?

SUSSAN LEY:         I have been trying very unsuccessfully to teach myself Arabic for a long time.

NADINE MALONEY:          Wow. That’s…

SUSSAN LEY:         [Interrupts] Because I grew up – grew up in the Emirates and my father is a fluent Arabic speaker and I’m a perfect example of how introducing someone to a language in their middle years is pretty much disastrous.

NADINE MALONEY:          Yeah. Yeah. Well, as I said, I found it really hard to take up French as a 13 year old. So…

SUSSAN LEY:         [Interrupts] Just think, we all had a little bit of French. If we found ourselves in France, you know, we would all be able to get by and that’s…

NADINE MALONEY:          [Interrupts] Bonjour.

SUSSAN LEY:         We did actually – we did actually learn a bit of French and it sort of stuck there. Even though it wasn’t as early as it should have been, it was early enough.

NADINE MALONEY:          But the problem is when you’re surrounded by French speaking people and they’re just so fast that you cannot keep up – and I’m sure it’s the same in any language – when you only know the basics, trying to follow a conversation that is pretty enthusiastic is very difficult. So let’s go back to the actual apps that you’re trialling. Who developed the apps and how exactly will they work?

SUSSAN LEY:         Well, they’re being developed now and so, you know, I don’t know exactly the company that’s doing it. That’s all in train ready to kick off next year. So that’s part of the trial. I mean, we know it will be tablet-based, we know it will be [indistinct] based because that’s how children learn and that’s how they learn everything now in those early years which is – which is a terrific approach. Quite different from sitting in lines and holding your pencils and sitting up straight, which happened a few – a couple of generations ago. So we know that about it. But in terms of how it will actually play out with the children? That’s part of what this trial is all about. So the findings of it will indicate to us how we can best make it happen across the board in preschools and really work well.

NADINE MALONEY:          That’s interesting. I would like to hear more about it when it’s further developed. Sussan Ley, Assistant Minister for Education, merci beaucoup. And I have just forgotten what goodbye is. How bad is that?

SUSSAN LEY:         It’s au revoir.

NADINE MALONEY:          Oh, of course. See? No wonder I was terrible. I was terrible at French. Nice to talk to you. Thanks for your time.

SUSSAN LEY:         Thanks, Nadine. Bye-bye.

NADINE MALONEY:          Au revoir. Bye. Sussan Ley, Assistant Minister for Education on this interesting trial that will be running next year. Some sort of app or apps on sort of devices, for pre school age kids to learn foreign languages


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