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The Forum > Article Comments > Speaking the language > Comments

Speaking the language : Comments

By Mercurius Goldstein, published 23/10/2006

Why doesn’t Australia hire more language teachers from overseas?

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Mercurius is correct in that he sees the importance of comparing what we do in Australia with what happens elsewhere. In the particular issue considered in his article -the teaching of Japanese - he highlights a radical diffence in methods of obtaining people who can teach the subject in schools. There may be problems if we employed people with little English - the most obvious being that such a teacher would probably only be able to teach the one subject, a fact that could make the person of dubious use to a given school. That might be of especial significance if it were a primary school. Nevertheless Mercurius is right in that we must examine what happens elsewhere even if the idea turns out to have only limited application.

However I urge Mercurius to extend his consideration of overseas ideas/outcomes to maths and science. I know that he will point to the PISA results (taken only by OECD countries) and claim that all is well. He needs to extend his vision to the wider and much longer standing TIMSS testing. A few quotations of a summary of the performance of our children on both tests by ACER are of interest:
'The data for both studies tell a disconcrting story'

'While 73% of YEar 4 students in Singapore reach the high international benchmark, only 26% of Australian students reach this benchmark. Also relative to other contries, Australian Year 4 students now perform less well in school mathematics and science than they did almost a decade ago.'

'If Australia is to lift its performance in TIMSS over the next decade, then greater attention will need to be given to the teaching of basic factual and procedural knowledge...'

So, well done Mercurius, you have come up with an interesting idea that you obtained by looking abroad. Good.

But it is only a start. Now look at maths and science. There we could and should learn from abroad. Fix up the syllabi, fix up the assessments.
Posted by eyejaw, Monday, 23 October 2006 10:48:25 AM
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An excellent post by eyejaw. Couldn't agree more.

I opened this article because I felt that it might be arguing for importing teachers to teach English. That way we might get teachers with some knowledge of the basics of English that are being neglected by many English Teachers.

Overall it is a great idea that could well have been extended to Maths and Science and perhaps other subjects.

If, of course we had a decent set of core Syllabus documents for each subject area that would be a good start.
Posted by Sniggid, Monday, 23 October 2006 11:49:13 AM
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Mercurius needs to be careful. A fluent speaker isn't necessarily a good teacher. Especially the Japanes approach to language teaching is far removed from ours. Chalk and talk, rather than speak and hear.

My daughter was taught Italian by a native Italian speaker, with appalling results because of that approach.

My wife has been a particularly successful teacher of French, so we watched in dismay as the language lessons at our daughter's school fell apart.

Our schools have a context that is far removed from many other overseas countries, so care has to be taken in recruiting language teachers.

So, all in the garden is not lovely - beware of sloganeering in education. it's much more complex than that.
Posted by Jill and Alan True, Monday, 23 October 2006 3:00:03 PM
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Mercurius, lucid and convincing as always. Anything which weakens the parochialism of our people and institutions is to be welcomed.

However, I wonder to what use those hundreds of thousands of new Japanese-language speakers have/will put their skills? Kevin Rudd first pushed the idea of all students learning Chinese and/or Japanese at a Special Premiers’ Conference (CoAG’s predecessor in 1990-91), when he was head of Queensland’s Cabinet Office and I was his colleague. I raised a number of issues at the time, which are still relevant.

First, Kevin’s main argument was that Australia’s trade and trading opportunities with Japan and China were increasing; that Australian businessmen needed to be fluent in the languages to do business effectively; and therefore every child should learn those languages. My arguments included that –

1. English is the global language for business, academia, research, entertainment etc. Few businessmen would benefit from fluency in Japanese and Chinese.

2. Even if they would, neither language is easy to learn. The extensive time taken to become fluent in either language would greatly reduce time for acquiring relevant business skills.

(In practice, we have had enormous growth in our dominant exports of minerals and metals to those countries; I doubt if increased language skills made any difference to that growth.)

3. There were no sensible grounds for having all children exposed to these languages, as my three were. In practice, their exposure to Chinese/Japanese was trivial, of no benefit. Their teachers admitted this, but said it was important to have exposure to those cultures. Again, the exposure was trivial and useless, given that my wife and I have travelled extensively, including long spells in Asia, have a Burmese Indian spiritual teacher and that the kids each independently had friends from, e.g., China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, India etc. They and their peers would have gained more benefit from greater focus on basics such as English. (more follows)
Posted by Faustino, Monday, 23 October 2006 3:31:20 PM
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A further point is that the very young mind has a great capacity to absorb languages, but this falls away rapidly (early grasp of language is an important survival/getting on skill, once infancy has passed and at least one language been acquired, the brain redirects resources to acquiring more useful skills). Learning Japanese or Chinese at later stages – when children can consciously decide that they would like to pursue them - requires great effort and determination. Given the apparently poor standard of English of many high school graduates, I wonder how good the Japanese and Chinese skills are? (More later)
Posted by Faustino, Monday, 23 October 2006 3:32:09 PM
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sniggid, eyejaw - your suggestion to look overseas for approaches to science and maths teaching, while potentially valuable, is also subject to the same problem as my own proposal re: language teaching. The trouble with any comparative approach is we can't be confident that transplanting a successful approach from country A will work in country B. Exotic transplants, like hothouse flowers, are so fickle.

In the case of language teaching, we can plausibly submit that Australians would have very little tolerance for a teacher with low-level English-speaking ability. In Japan this has been less of an obstacle, for many Japanese schools take the view that they are not "paying" their English teachers to speak Japanese, and are quite miffed if we do.

Regardless, unless the foreign-background teacher has attained native-like proficiency in the students’ language, special classroom arrangements are called for. In both Australia and Japan, there is support for an expensive but effective solution, known as team teaching, whereby native and non-native speakers teach together. A two-year Australian study found that team teaching to be much more effective than teaching in isolation. Likewise in Japan, team teaching is one of the most common and most effective strategies employed when the foreign teacher has little Japanese. An obvious limitation is that staff requirements are literally double, and it’s a staff shortage we’re trying to solve here.

Who knows what overseas maths and sciences methods may prove effective? It's outside my training, but it would be good to hear from others who specialise in this area.

An example of a likely transplant failure would be the French approach, where they like to boast that at any given time of day, or time of the year, one can know that the same content is being taught in every classroom in the nation. The UK is also going this way. Maybe it works there, maybe it doesn't. But in a nation as diverse as Australia, how well would one size fit all? It's stretching the bounds of credulity to suggest that what works in Malvern would work in Mackay...
Posted by Mercurius, Monday, 23 October 2006 4:13:51 PM
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