Every child benefits from learning an additional language. The Australian Government understands this and has included Languages as one of the eight mandated Learning Areas in the Melbourne Declaration of Young Australians (2008). Not only is learning a new language fun, but it has several benefits for the individual and the Australian society at large.
Learning languages is for all children, not just for the “bright” ones. If we look at the whole world, most people speak at least two languages and monolingual people are a minority. Many countries in Europe, Asia and Africa expect all students to learn not one but several additional languages during their schooling. In Finland, students must learn two additional languages up to Year 12 to graduate from high school, and the maximum number of languages a student is able to study simultaneously at Year 12 is six.
It is a misconception that additional languages hinder children’s language development in English. It has been proven by several studies that learning a language develops students’ overall literacy skills as well as their command of the English language. Children with more than one language have better understanding of languages as a system, have better overall literacy skills, can transfer their skills from one language to the other and are able to learn new languages more easily.
“Literacy” is a term that refers to human written and spoken communication in general, not just to one particular language. Literacy skills like “skimming and scanning text”, guessing new words from context and choosing the degree of formality needed depending on who you are speaking to, apply to all languages and can be developed in any language context. When students study languages, they have added opportunities to practice literacy skills. They can apply these general literacy techniques to any language they are communicating in, including English, and therefore further improve their English literacy.
In recent years, grammar instruction has again become priority, even in the early years. In a Languages class, linguistic terms like “noun”, “verb”, “subject” and “predicate” are constantly explained and referred to, reinforcing what is learnt in the English literacy class. In addition, by comparing and contrasting the sentence structure of the new language with that of English, the grammatical structures of English are highlighted. In many cases children who struggle with English spelling find it easier to read and write other, more phonetic languages. Scripted languages like Chinese and Japanese offer a new challenge to all students, and they enjoy learning a “secret code” that their parents are often unable to read.
Languages have huge cognitive benefits for the learner. Just like music, they engage the brain in new ways, making it work harder and more efficiently. This leads to higher achievement in all learning areas. There are schools all over Australia and in other parts of the world that teach part of their curriculum, like sport, art, science or numeracy, through another language. When this is done systematically from Pre-Primary, the students have high level of fluency in the additional language by Year 6. This is in spite of the fact that most of the children would have no background in the language. The common expectation is that NAPLAN scores would suffer, but in fact in most cases, these students outperform their peers by Year 5.
Learning languages teaches inter-cultural understanding. Students learn not only cultural practises associated with the language they are learning, but understand how people from different countries view the world. Even more importantly, they become aware of the cultural practises and believes that have formed these opinions. This leads to questions about our identity as Australians: who are we, what do we believe in and why? Students will also see that there are more similarities between people from different countries than what separates us, and the most basic human believes and values are the same. This will help alleviate racism and cultural tensions, as well as open our hearts to immigrants and refugees. Learning languages also allows us to be more adventurous and make the most of our travel experiences.
Finally, learning additional languages has economic benefits. In most industries, knowing another language is a bonus, and will lead to better employment opportunities. Having multilingual citizens benefits us as a country. It is easier to sell our products to the world when we know the language and the business practises of other countries.
Children need a high quality, well-rounded education that best prepares them for the opportunities and challenges of the future. In an increasingly global and multicultural society like Australia, learning Languages is part of this vision.
By Mariel Howard
K-12 Languages Consultant
Swan Christian Education Association