Saying 'Yes' to Languages Study in Years 11 and 12

By Kurt Mullane, Executive Director, Asia Education Foundation

Followers of AEF’s leadership blog will be familiar with our view that speaking more than one language is vital to young Australians’ future life and work prospects in a globally connected world. It's therefore of pressing concern that Languages have the lowest enrolments of any senior secondary years subject in Australia, with a scant 11 per cent of students at this level studying a language other than English. It’s a national failing that hasn’t shifted for 20 years.

Close to 100 per cent of students exit schooling with a strong grounding in more than one language in the high-performing school education systems we measure our performance against. These systems mandate language learning across year levels. In Australia, mandating languages in Foundation to Year 10 is rare.

Providing students with a wide diversity of subject choice underpins our senior secondary certification models. Languages however is the first subject most likely to be omitted when our students choose their Year 11 and 12 subjects. We need to better understand what attracts or deters students from studying languages in Year 11 and 12 and the dynamics behind senior student subject choice more broadly.

Why do some students choose languages in Years 11 and 12?

Recent research commissioned by the Federal Government and undertaken by AEF offers a window into the complexities inherent in a student’s senior secondary subject choice process and their decision to continue or discontinue languages study.

We began our research by asking students why they continued or discontinued language study in their senior years. They cited a combination of deeply personal and strategic and pragmatic reasons.

For those who do choose to study languages, personal reasons include a keen interest, enjoyment and success in learning languages. Students rarely continue languages without this high level of personal engagement. Reasons based on language utility, including getting a good ATAR score and future work, study and travel plans, are also taken into consideration by these students.

A major reason students do not choose to study a language in senior secondary is simply due to a lack of direct access to their preferred language in their school. Many of these students are interested in continuing language study but identify program provision by distance learning as a disincentive. Where access to a student’s preferred language is available, a combination of mainly strategic reasons concerned with quality of teaching, language utility and subject choice priorities conspire to influence a decision to not study a language.

Interestingly, while parents influence students’ language study choices in the earlier years of schooling, they do not appear to have a strong influence in the senior secondary years.

What action is required to boost senior secondary languages enrolments?

The report explores potential interventions to reverse the pattern of low enrolments in senior secondary languages in Australia. It acknowledges that whilst approaches to boost languages enrolments to date appear to have stabilised enrolment numbers at current low levels, a turn-around strategy is required. Only new and sustained national action at school, system, tertiary and community levels will increase the number of our young people continuing with languages study.

The report notes the necessity to expand student access to high-quality languages learning in the Early Years to Year 10 to build a greater ‘pipeline’ of languages students for the senior years. Our current pipeline to Year 10 is not strong, with language learning commonly an elective subject after Year 8. It makes sense that keeping more students learning languages in Years 9 and 10 is vital to ensuring more students are in a position to choose languages for Years 11 and 12.

However, building a stronger pipeline of languages students alone is unlikely to guarantee increased enrolments in the senior years. Our research identifies four inter-dependent interventions requiring concurrent action to build and sustain student demandfor senior secondary languages:

  1. Expand opportunities to study languages in senior secondary certification structures: expand the number of subjects required for senior secondary certification to six and provide incentives for students to choose a language; provide multiple pathways for students to gain languages certification including Beginners courses, senior secondary accreditation of community-based language programmes and more VET courses.
  2. Provide access to high quality languages programmes: undertake research on using technologies and language immersion programmes to improve language teaching quality and provision; partner with business to co-invest in technology enabled languages learning; expand language hubs to share languages teaching expertise; improve access in initial teacher education to language specific pedagogies.   
  3. Engage all stakeholders in promoting the value and utility of languages: commit to a nationally agreed set of messages to build demand for languages that speak directly to the interests of senior secondary students; engage school leaders to promote languages; recognise student progress at various stages of learning leading to the senior years and provide students with more attractive post secondary language pathways in universities and VET.
  4. Collaborate nationally to support languages planning and implementation: undertake national collaborative work to boost languages enrolments; agree to nationally consistent languages data collection and reporting framework; share evidence of system and school polices and strategies that boost student enrolment numbers; collaborate on research in the national interest including the use of new technologies to teach languages and expanding the student pipeline from Early Years to Year 10.

This research was undertaken for the Australian Government Department of Education and Training in partnership with ACER, University of South Australia and Monash University. View the full report (Opens in a new window).

More Information

Renuka Rajadurai

T: +61 3 9035 9605