Some people argue that Australia in the Asian century may be disadvantaged because future generations are not picking up regional languages, particularly Mandarin and Indonesian.
Now it seems that more and more Australian parents are placing importance on their children speaking a second language.
And bilingual immersion programs could be the key.
Presenter: Nick Fogarty
Speakers: Merridy Patterson, Abbotsford Primary School Principal; Dr Michele de Courcy, senior TESOL lecturer at the University of South Australia; Martin Dixon, Victorian Minister for Education; Anne, Abbotsford Primary School student
ANNE: Yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu...
FOGARTY: Anne is a grade 6 student at Abbotsford Primary School in Melbourne's inner-east. She is also part of their Mandarin-Chinese immersion program, which has been running for over twenty years. Each week, students in the immersion program spend seven and a half hours being taught subjects like maths, literacy and art, entirely in Chinese. Today the grade 2-3 class is learning calligraphy. Although teacher My Hoa speaks slowly to the small class, she refuses to explain things in English.
Abbotsford Primary Principal Merridy Patterson says although children can initially be daunted by the foreign language, they quickly overcome their fears.
PATTERSON: The majority of the children come in with no Chinese at all, so they come in and at the start of the year they look a little bit shocked at the very beginning when they go into the Mandarin class and My Hoa is speaking to them in Mandarin. But within about two to three weeks you can see that their ears are tuning and they're picking up the sounds and the language, and they become very settled.
FOGARTY: Seven Victorian primary schools now run bilingual immersion programs in Asian languages. Ms Patterson believes that the rewards of intensive second language learning can be seen in all areas of the students' schooling.
PATTERSON: Children at a young age are wired to learn language, so the best time to get them to learn different languages is when they're young. And that development of language enhances their learning of all kinds of language, so it enhances their learning of English as well. So it's amazing when you see the children in the, in that bilingual classroom and see how they're performing in all aspects of their schooling.
FOGARTY: Dr Michele de Courcy is a language teaching specialist. She believes that regular second language programs are mostly ineffective in teaching real language skills.
DE COURCY: If the children are studying a language, they would normally have maybe half an hour a week or if they're really lucky three half-hour classes a week, and I call that a "drip-feed" method. And you're not actually going to develop much language in that time. It really ends up being more of a language awareness program or a cultural awareness program.
FOGARTY: Dr de Courcy says Australians are sometimes too comfortable with being monolingual.
DE COURCY: We do tend to take it for granted in Australia that, "well, English is a world language", but I think that attitude puts you at a disadvantage in understanding other cultures, because so much of the culture is embedded in the language. The way that other people look at the world is shown through the way that they use their language.
FOGARTY: Both the federal and state governments seem to be taking notice. The Victorian government recently released a paper outlining its vision for second language learning in schools. It included figures showing a 30 per cent decrease over the last ten years, in the number of government primary schools offering second languages. State education minister Martin Dixon believes language learning needs to regain its former importance, with Asian languages leading the charge.
DIXON: When the objective is to make our children more globally aware and to be competitive on the global field, it's very important that they have a, actually have a language that is going to be of use for them.
FOGARTY: For children like Anne though, language immersion is not about economics or career prospects.
ANNE: There's always Mid-Autumn Festival, and here in Abbotsford we get to make our own lanterns, and we go to the Mid-Autumn Festival, and it's beautiful.