Published in NT Suns in March 2017



Sometimes educational ideas appear to lack common sense. Thoughts about change are based on whims and the sudden revelation of ‘good ideas’. When these utterances are made by important people and key decision makers, they cannot really be ignored. In my opinion, an example of policy being made on the run is Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham having decided that it’s important for all Australian preschool children to learn Japanese.

Pronouncing Japanese as ‘the’ language to be learned ignores the fact that some schools have chosen to learn an indigenous dialect or to prioritise Indonesian, Mandarin or some other language.

This initiative overlooks an important language need. Our children must become well-versed in the understanding and use of English. Superimposing other languages, particularly in early schooling years can detract from this “homegrown” language need. The time and attention that is devoted to studying a foreign language is the time and attention that should be given to mastery of our mother tongue.

The English Language involves more than just speaking. There is listening, interpretation, comprehension and understanding, along with reading and writing. The way in which Australian young people understand and use our basic language, suggests that these elements are often lacking. NAPLAN tests certainly confirm these deficits.

There is no guarantee of any permanent and ongoing immersion of children in the study of Japanese or other foreign languages. Spur of the moment initiatives often fade quickly. This new alternative language approach is likely to be dropped as suddenly as it was introduced. This often leaves language learners in limbo because there is no follow-through. In turn, this could give rise to cynical attitudes toward a study of languages other than English alternative language study.

For Japanese to succeed as a second language, study opportunity would need to be continued through primary and into secondary school. That would need to happen around the Territory and Australia. There is little likelihood that this will happen.

Many employers are concerned about language and literacy deficits among young people. They say that young people have very poor communication skills, cannot write, cannot hold an intelligent conversation and often don’t understand what’s going on because of poor literacy.

Surely, this fix needs to come from within the educational system. The earlier children begin to have a sound understanding and working knowledge of the English language and its use, the better. Putting that off and substituting a language other than English may be unwise.

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