13 Nov 2013

Australia Takes the Bilingual Lead

Australia knows which side its bread is buttered.

Relatively speaking, the nation is on the doorstep of some major economic players in Asia, most notably China. And a succession of Australian governments have made efforts to take advantage of this situation.

Only last year, former prime minister Julia Gillard outlined a foreign policy aimed at improving Asian ties.

Her Labor government launched a white paper laying out a series of national objectives based on the region, including improving trade links with Asian nations and the teaching of more Mandarin in Australian schools.

During the release of the white paper ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, Ms Gillard said it was a moment in history to grasp, as most of the world’s middle class would be found in Asia within the next 20 years.

Surmounting the language barrier is self-evidently crucial if trade relations are to flourish between nations, and the Australian education system is leading the way in this endeavour.

Ms Gillard’s government set a target for every Australian high school child to be given the opportunity to learn an Asian language by 2025, while the current PM, Tony Abbott, has pledged that 40% of high school children should be learning a foreign language within the next decade.

The BBC recently reported on a visit to Richmond West Primary School in Melbourne. This state-funded school, which educates pupils from 23 different ethnic backgrounds, is one of the country’s few bilingual schools.

The institution, which is not in a well-off area, successfully runs a bilingual English and Chinese immersion programme.

A teacher at the school, Kim Lim said: “The younger they start learning Chinese as a second language, the easier it is for them to learn.

“They are like sponges, socially and mentally they just easily absorb things. Learning a second language comes naturally.”

During the immersion days, all classes are taught in the new language. And the language possibilities do not stop at Mandarin. Pupils also have the option to enter a similar programme in Vietnamese.

It is expected that after studying Mandarin for six years, the children will be fluent in both reading and writing.

Dr Jane Orton, director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the University of Melbourne, said: “This school is a treasure.

“It really shows that it can be done and that’s what people need to see.”

But Australia still has a way to go before realising its goal of a generation of children fluent in an Asian language. Richmond is only one of 10 schools that operates a total immersion programme in an Asian language.

And Dr Orton says the standard educational programme for Mandarin and other Asian languages is limited, with high drop-out rates. However, it is a step in the right direction.

The 21st century has already been dubbed by some as the Asian Century, and nothing improves trading relations more than the ability to fluently converse. Calls have already been made for an increase in the teaching of Mandarin in UK schools, and it would be no surprise to anyone if the steps taken by Australia are not mirrored by more Western nations, as Asia’s influence throughout the globe continues to increase.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.