Published (edited) in The Suns 29 November 2016. This is the unedited text.
‘ENGLISH FIRST’ HAS TO BE THE PRIORITY
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s announcement that four year old Australian students will be introduced to a foreign language program deserves careful consideration. At Australian, State and Territory level, the study of languages other than English (LOTE) has had its moments. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the NT Department of Education actively supported a Languages Other Than English (LOTE) initiative.
Schools teaching a LOTE program were supported by additional staffing resources. Language teachers were appointed. Over time and because of budget shrinkage, LOTE programs came to be staffed from ‘within existing resources’. Loss of staff entitlement meant a change to school priorities. In some cases, language programs were put on hold because schools had other needs. A program that had enjoyed system support lost significance.
The present situation
Language study in many schools has become piecemeal. The language taught may have changed, for instance from Indonesian to Chinese. School finances often don’t stretch to accomodate language as a peripheral subject. In some schools, the language other than English was the second language of a particular staff member. In some instances, the language was taught by a community member or volunteer who was paid from the part time instructors budget.
Right now the NT Education’s Language Learning Centre in Ludmilla, offers some support on a ‘user pays’ basis to parents. Various ethnic groups teach language and culture at weekends or out of school hours. But there has been no uniform or workable systemic policy put in place.
The emergence of Australian Curriculum and national educational priorities is leading to a rebirth of the LOTE emphasis. It seems that the desirable outcome will be an infusion of second language learning opportunities across the board for all Australian schools, preschool, primary and secondary. However, the on cost issues (material and staffing resources) will continue to fall on the shoulders of individual schools.
The issue of LOTE for preschool and transition students is about ‘too much too soon’. Australian children need to become confident and competent in the understanding and use of English. Anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that students are challenged by English grammar and language usage. Speech, speaking, listening and comprehension skills are often underdeveloped. These shortfalls have a flow on effect, with oral and written communication not reaching acceptable levels.
Emphasising English from the outset and getting things right in relation to our major language of use has to be educationally front and centre. English rather than second language studies needs to be the focus.