Languages of Learning

By Hamish Curry
Executive Director, Asia Education Foundation

Image by Charles Strebor, via Flickr

‘Speak to me in a language I can hear.’

-Thirty-Three, The Smashing Pumpkins, 1995

One of the most frustrating elements of language is the tendency for meaning to get lost in translation. Recently I was fascinated to learn that even the Victorian Wurundjeri peoples’ welcome of wominjeka does not literally mean ‘welcome’. It translates more accurately as ‘come with purpose’; a definition I believe is far more powerful and reflective of the manner in which we must approach intercultural learning.

It is our ongoing ambition to see languages form a much bigger part of the narrative of learning in this country. When we engage with languages foreign to us we must be open to meaning, and really listen. I am encouraged to hear that some schools are embracing indigenous languages for their students. I am also encouraged to hear that the Queensland Department of Education has reported that 40,000 more students are studying languages. I am also encouraged to hear that Indonesian is growing in popularity in Western Australia. However I am still frustrated and worried that these positive developments happen in nationally fragmented ways, without consistent leadership or even more effective ways to share how we are shaping our emerging global citizens in schools.

While there are positive signs, there is still much more that could be done to help our students and schools embrace languages education; especially those that reflect the diverse voices in our communities. Personal motivation and choice are key factors, as too are teacher pedagogy and access to language experts. A further key catalyst we know is crucial is combining language learning with deep immersive experiences that take students and teachers beyond formal structured language lessons. New programs are emerging all the time, for example the recent wonderful story of the Kinmen Project by the Tasmanian Department of Education.  Students in North-West Tasmania are being connected to Taiwan, and in turn forming new friendships, gaining new perspectives and learning to show empathy for people far away from their direct experience.

The Tasmanian Department of Education initiative with Kinmen, Taiwan, has had a lasting impact on local students. Image by Mana_Wu, via Flickr    

Then there is the language of learning. It is timely that Australia is at the beginning of conversations to revise and reshape the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Amongst its key ambitions, the Declaration recognised that:

“global integration and international mobility have increased rapidly in the past decade. As a consequence, new and exciting opportunities for Australians are emerging. This heightens the need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural and religious diversity, and a sense of global citizenship… Australians need to become ‘Asia literate’, engaging and building strong relationships with Asia.”

I would strongly agree that little has changed in the speed of that trajectory, but so too has the complexity and breadth of what we demand of education.  Some of the most exciting developments in education reform  are coming from our neighbours.. Singapore and Korea have excelled in many respects of education reform, especially in globalising their curriculum. Singapore is also now exploring blockchain technology to produce digital certificates for university graduates. China is working hard towards reshaping their education around ‘creative problem solving’. Indonesia has ramped up their work on four key capabilities as priorities for teaching and learning: critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and collaboration. Malaysia has redeveloped their education system and is aiming for every child to learn an additional language by 2025 (meaning that many students would speak three languages). Vietnam is on the rise in education, spending the equivalent of nearly six per cent  of its GDP on education., Australia is spending about 3.2% by comparison.

Without a doubt, Australia’s education future will be richer and more productive if we collaborate with our Asian neighbours. There are enormous opportunities for us to work together in shared networks of education in areas like sustainability, pedagogy, wellbeing, civics, and learning spaces. Our ideas are matched by theirs, and our challenges are often mirrored by theirs. Imagine the dynamic and globally relevant ‘learning ecosystems’ we could create by collaborating with our region. Learning ecosystems that diversify and share learning resources as well as open pathways for learners, and comprise both formal and informal learning.

It sounds obvious to say that the words we use give us identity and purpose. We must continue to place a strong emphasis on the value and impact that second-language learning creates. Yet we must also evolve our thinking about what really drives the language of learning - purposeful collaboration and the clarity of shared meaning.