Learning a second language in primary school

Upon its release in March 2018, the highly anticipated Gonski 2.0 report provided recommendations on curriculum and assessment reform in the Australian education system. However, the report seemed to ignore the significant decline in Language Other Than English (LOTE) learning that has left Australia lingering behind 34 OECD countries when it comes to secondary students leaving school with more than one language under their belt. 

Despite increasing globalisation, Australian students are becoming more monolingual than ever. In the 1960s, 40 per cent of Year 12 students studied a second language throughout their schooling life; by 2007, this statistic had dropped down to just 13 per cent. Data from the 2016 Census showed that more than 17 million Australians speak only English at home, while just under five million speak another language. This evidence has led both education and linguistics experts to push for reform at the most junior levels of our national curriculum to establish LOTE as a pillar of Australian education.   

The call for early LOTE education is grounded in research on language acquisition – studies have found that childhood is the perfect time to start becoming bilingual, as the brain is in its ‘critical period’ of learning between birth and up to the age of ten. Younger brains are more flexible during this period, with their learning receptors finding it easier to absorb new combinations of sounds than older brains with established first-language comprehension. 

With all this information in mind, we’ve analysed the potential benefits and liabilities of introducing compulsory second language learning into Australian primary curriculum.  

Benefits

  • Improved English literacy and comprehension skills: research has found that early exposure to LOTE education can enhance a student’s understanding of their first language. By learning both their native and foreign tongues at the same time, students draw clear links between cross-lingual phonetic and semantic patterns to develop a deep understanding of language conventions. 
  • Greater cognitive capacity: switching between different languages in both speech and thought enhances multi-tasking, problem solving and critical thinking abilities among students of all ages. 
  • Being bilingual is an advantage: we work, travel and live globally more than ever before – being able to speak a foreign language allows for better communication and greatly boosts future career prospects at home and abroad. 
  • Strengthens cultural awareness: when learning a second language, students gain more than just an ability to communicate in another tongue. They also learn the historical and social contexts of the language, which enrichens their cultural intelligence. 

Liabilities

  • Danger of language interference: the case against early LOTE learning contends that it can affect a student’s ability to adequately master their first language, as shifting between native and foreign tongue can cause language interference between words, patterns and conventions. 
  • Not fully utilised until adulthood: some argue that speaking a second language is not a skill needed until later in life, leaving a learned language vulnerable to forgetting if there’s a lag between education and application. This calls the merit of intensive LOTE education early on in schooling life into question – however, linguistics experts believe that learning a second language is a long-term effort that provides increasing benefits over time. 

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