Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:16 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:16 | SYDNEY

Language teaching is all about culture

21 May 2012 15:09

Ben Moles is an intern in the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.

I followed the Asian languages in Australia debate with great interest last year and am glad to see it is a recurring theme in the Australia in the Asian Century feature too. How could it not be?

Coming from the UK, at the time of my high school education (1996-2001) it was mandatory to follow a language until the age of 16. Sadly this is no longer the case. The requirement was dropped by the Labour Government in 2004, leading to a massive slump in the numbers taking languages.

The compulsory instruction of a language at school, however, didn't equate to my learning a language there. Ultimately, teaching in school just isn't enough. Thinking back, I remember the greatest hurdle our teachers had was convincing us and our parents that languages were important: 'don't worry about French/Spanish/German, focus on the important subjects', was an expression all too commonly heard not only from my own parents but the parents of my friends.

A further struggle was getting us to connect with not just the language but the culture that surrounds it. Trying to stimulate interest in a foreign language and culture during three one-hour lessons a week in a cold classroom in Norwich was a gargantuan task.

As I look back at the mayhem that was our language classes, I wonder why on earth our teachers persevered against such stacked odds. Then I recall my teachers' genuine love for their chosen language and culture, and how they came by it — through visiting and thus being immersed in the language and culture of those countries.

Our teachers' attempts to generate our interest in their passion was akin to attempting to distil an interest in coffee through a description of coffee, without giving us the opportunity to touch, taste, see, hear or smell it. They didn't stand a chance. Some things you just have to experience.

After finishing high school, I did something I hadn't been able to do prior; travel. I am convinced that, had we all had the opportunity to spend some time absorbing and connecting with the language and culture in one or all of the countries our school offered languages in, then the seeds of interest planted through our language classes would have stood a better chance of maturing.

Concerning the language debate in Australia, a better job needs be done at convincing students, but more crucially their parents, of the merits and importance of learning a foreign language. If Australian students are to develop real interest in a language program, then as Hugh White proposed, the debate needs to be focused on how we get more of them to visit these countries first. It can never be said with a 100% certainty that genuine interest in the language and culture will naturally follow on from here, but I'd say it's a good place to start.

Photo by Flickr user AroFarmer.