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The importance of bilingualism in early learning

· Emily Clifford,Language,Bilingualism,Analysis

In May, Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas delivered the 2019/20 State Budget including $7.5 million to support our state’s community language schools, ensuring more young Victorians can learn their ‘mother tongue’ and connect with their heritage. In Victoria, there has been greater emphasis in recent years to promote learning a second language in school and to see this impact positively on students personal and professional lives.

In July 2017, a Federal review into education was established to make recommendations on how funding could be used to improve school performance outcomes. The Review panel was chaired by Australian businessman David Gonski who released the final Report from the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (often referred to as Gonski 2.0) on 30 April 2018. While receiving both praise and criticism, the Report makes significant recommendations across a wide range of areas relating to curriculum, assessment, reporting and individualised learning. It advocates for a greater focus on literacy and numeracy, particularly in foundational years, but overlooks the need to emphasize teaching a language other than English, a gap identified by Finnish Professor Pasi Sehlberg. Sehlberg, a passionate advocate for bilingualism backs the research behind early language learning, stating ‘early language learning benefits cognitive development; there is correlation between bilingualism and memory, problem-solving, and intelligence’.

While dwarfed by other budgetary commitments, the Victorian Government’s investment into language is critical as it has been widely reported in recent years that foreign language learning is declining despite 300 languages spoken in Australian homes. The 2016 Census illustrated that only 10% of students graduating from secondary school in Victoria have studied a second language. In comparison, it is estimated that 94% of students in the European Union learnt a foreign language throughout their secondary school education, with 60% of students learning two or more. The lack of secondary language uptake also contrasts starkly with a 181% increase in the demand for bi-lingual skills in jobs advertised.

Language has the ability to connect people to their culture, history and tradition with language and identity often intrinsically interwoven. Notwithstanding the advantages of bilingualism in a social and professional setting, an understanding foreign language, and in turn, a glimpse into other cultures, creates a social setting in which the distance between ‘worlds’ becomes smaller. Despite Australia’s geographical proximity to countries in Asia such as China and Indonesia, and Mandarin remaining Australia’s second most commonly spoken language, other languages such as Japanese, Italian and French continue to feature strongly within Victorian Primary and Secondary schools.

Increasing engagement with language learning within the education system is in line with the Report’s recommendations to move towards a modernised education system in which students are prepared for a rapidly changing globalised world where language is a vital tool of connection and inclusion.

The inclusion of language in early childhood learning is a worthwhile investment for all states to embrace as students will gain a greater understanding of linguistic diversity and promote intercultural curiosity from a young age. As Australia continues to be increasingly multicultural, with increasingly diverse voices shaping the political and business landscape, putting greater emphasis on the need for second language learning (and making it compulsory through primary and secondary years) will be a worthwhile investment into the future.

Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change