There’s been considerable discussion recently about the limited time dedicated to second languages in primary classrooms, resulting in as few as one in 20 children going on to study an additional language to HSC or equivalent level.
This raises several questions around the value and benefits of young people learning another language – along with the culture/s in which they exist – both for them as individuals and for society. Questions remain as to how we maintain and build interest, and how to best support teachers in this.
Languages as a useful tool
There are many benefits to learning languages. Years of research has shown evidence of it enhancing students’ literacy skills and helps them to have a better understanding of their own first language. They become more aware of patterns in their own language, improving their comprehension and ability to read and write. It improves memory and brain function, as well as problem-solving, listening and critical-thinking skills, enhanced concentration, and multitasking abilities.
Enriching travel experiences
Learning a language will open travel opportunities in a post-COVID world. Speaking the language of the country you’re visiting brings more opportunities to immerse yourself in and appreciate the local culture; interact with locals, understand written information and travel with ease. It makes it easier to go beyond ‘tourism’ and connect with the place and its people. It also opens more doors to opportunities for studying or working abroad.
On top of those initial benefits, learning a new language encourages curiosity and openness in learners. As students develop their language skills, they’re better at communicating across cultures and interacting in a positive way with people from other countries. Greater understanding fosters greater tolerance, empathy, and acceptance of others — with research showing children who have studied another language are more open and positive towards the culture associated with that language.
Wider career opportunities
Career prospects are bolstered through learning languages. These skills can offer a real competitive advantage to setting the student apart, who are applying for the same jobs, with the same qualifications, but without the additional language skills which increasing numbers of companies are seeking, as they look for staff who can communicate confidently with customers in new and expanding overseas markets.
Despite these benefits, concern remains about the lack of time and priority given to languages both here, and abroad. Languages have often been classed in certain circles as elitist and unnecessary. So, what can be done to change this perception and make language learning more accessible to students of all abilities and backgrounds?
A classroom tool to lessen the burden
Many language teachers in schools around the world are already doing incredible work in this area, working hard every day to get students into their classes and promoting to them the benefits of learning a language. Armidale High School in NSW is an example of a school whose languages department is doing amazing work to ensure language learning is fun and exciting, and encouraging learners to continue their studies at higher levels.
At this school, technology is mentioned as one of the many tools for increasing engagement and motivation for students learning languages. Their use of the Education Perfect (EP) platform has advanced their students’ passion for and success in language studies.
The platform aims to make language learning accessible in several ways. Knowing that students are immersed in lots of language input in authentic situations where they can process the language at their own pace, the program allows for several functions, including students’ ability to slow down sound files at the click of a button to help them understand spoken language. They can practice their spoken language, both pronunciation and conversational language in a way which allows them to gain confidence. Through receiving instant feedback, they can make progress and are encouraged to have a ‘growth mindset’, to come back and revisit questions/learning material that they haven’t yet mastered, at their own pace.
Benefitting teachers, too
Through using a platform of this nature, teachers can easily differentiate the learning material so students can work through individualised learning pathways appropriate for their level, and lessons are designed to be engaging and accessible based on authentic learning material, so students feel like they are communicating in real-life situations. Such classroom tools allow for teachers who aren’t fluent in the language they are teaching to use the platform with their students, increasing their own skills. With passages spoken by native speakers, teachers are given the option of having accurate pronunciation models available to their students.
It’s through offering lessons and learning opportunities on multiple levels, on numerous topics (many of them curriculum-aligned) the online learning tools (like EP) best support language learners and teachers in the primary classroom right through to teachers and students at the senior secondary level.
With so many cultural, linguistic, and cognitive gains to be made by learning a second language, the net value of embracing such programs is inestimable. It promotes the development of well-rounded, discerning, powerful thinkers ready to participate in tomorrow's increasingly globalised world.
Philippa Kruger is the Global Head of Languages at Education Perfect.