Language learning in the global arena

Image of foreign language books in the library
The Beanland Memorial Library at Girls Grammar has a large collection of foreign language books.
Ms S Garson, Director of International Studies

It is now a truism that the rise of English — through business, the spread of American culture, and the ubiquity of the Internet — will continue unabated, which could ultimately render all other languages obsolete. In Australia, with our already historically low rate of second-language proficiency, there are concerning signs of linguistic complacency in the form of platitudes such as ‘millions of mainland Chinese are learning English, so there’s no real need for me to learn Mandarin’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the view taken by Brisbane Girls Grammar School or the language teachers, and for good reason.

The benefits of learning a second language for both the individual and for Australian society as a whole are far-reaching. Finnish researcher Irina Buchberger asserts that language competence is ‘a key element in the personal and professional development of individuals’ (cited in Mueller, 2012, p. 29). Language learners develop communication skills, enhance their cognitive capacity for problem-solving and divergent thinking, appreciate other cultures, and enable greater post-school options. On the broader stage, Australia’s trade, cultural and tourist links with other countries make it more important than ever before for students to understand and value the ‘economic benefits of learning languages in addition to English’ as well as the ‘humanistic and cognitive’ ones (Reese, 2009, p. 41). Together, these benefits open doors to critical and creative engagement in the global arena.

Amidst all the noise currently surrounding education in our national discourse, it may have gone unnoticed that language learning has received some welcome attention. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the body responsible for producing the new Australian Curriculum, acknowledges the importance of additional language learning and seeks to move language education forward in Australia (Cutshall, 2008). It seeks to raise the profile of languages education as an important contributor to literacy, which can be ‘transferable across learning areas’ (ACARA, n.d.). It is difficult to disagree with Reese’s (2009) conclusions that, ‘foreign language education is imperative more so now because technology has made us more interconnected than ever. We need to know how to operate in different languages and cultural environments’ (p. 41). As so much of the current debate has centred on test league tables and international comparisons, it bears remembering that many European and Asian nations with successful education systems have had a long-standing commitment to compulsory second-language learning (Mueller, 2012).


So what can girls, parents and the School do to realise this learning? In the words of Noel Pearson (2011): ‘Determination alone is no guarantee of success, but you won’t get very far without it …. Part of the quality of seriousness is determination. Another part is discipline’ (p. 12). Foreign language proficiency requires a serious approach to school-based curriculum development and quality teaching and learning. Foreign language teachers strive for a ‘balance of accuracy and fluency-focused activities’ (Rifkin, 2003, p. 170). As opposed to the rote learning of previous eras, the ‘Communicative Method’, on which contemporary language teaching is based, values teaching, interaction and communicative competence. Listening and reading comprehension, speaking and writing ability, as well as the understanding of culture and perspectives, all allow learners to immerse themselves in authentic texts and be involved in communicative activities in groups. Students of modern languages are judged on their proficiency in listening, reading, writing and speaking. Language courses have further goals, such as learning about the history and literary traditions of the people who speak that language (Rifkin, 2003). Language teaching has also come a long way from the ‘Audiolingual Method’ taught in the mid-twentieth century, in which students memorised and recited numerous dialogues, but never really understood the meanings. Thus, language learning in the past was a behavioural exercise, rather than being concerned with interaction in authentic contexts (Rifkin, 2003).

Putting language skills to work in the ‘real world’ makes the language a living, and not simply an academic, entity. This is why our involvement with international Affiliate Schools is so important. The linguistic exchanges made possible by interacting with similar-age native speakers in France, Germany and Japan afford students entry to the melting pot of language and cultural immersion in a realistic context, extending language learning beyond the borders of the School. Girls learn to communicate in new and sophisticated ways through such exposure. Compared to previous generations, there is a shift to meaningful exchanges that are about more than seeing the world and participating in a homestay; these interactions also actively engage students in schooling and academic courses in the target country. Overseas students come to us, too, and seek to align their linguistic and cultural knowledge of Australian English. These experiences bear fruit only if they are approached with determination and discipline. Immersing oneself in the world of another language is a profoundly challenging experience, but one which benefits the determined learner incalculably.

Many adults in our School community may have embarked on language-learning journeys without ultimately arriving at fluency. This is testament not only to the difficulty of the task of acquiring another language, but to the need for support for language learners. Encouragement from home is crucial in sustaining life-wide student engagement in language education. Pearson’s (2011) twin exhortations to determination and discipline are also invitations for us to support the girls in their linguistic endeavours. To succeed, girls need to engage seriously in their learning, and this can be difficult. Few girls are interested in writing out characters, vocabulary or model sentences for hours each week, but exercises like this are precisely the kind of comprehensive, disciplined study that leads to proficiency. Adults in the educational mix — who may have faced similar challenges in language learning, and who have developed the wisdom and long-term view that our girls do not yet have — can remind, cajole, and encourage girls in regular, systematic efforts that are integral to the achievement of the greater goal. In short, proficiency in a language is a long-term commitment, and a team effort.

Language proficiency and communication are essential to our girls’ education and to their effective participation in the global arena. Competency in additional languages is also important for the future of Australia. Right now, there is a happy coincidence of the personal and the national: language learning has long been understood as personally enriching, and there is now a broader acknowledgement of the ways in which it may well be nationally so. By committing to learning a language, the girls are learning not just the languages they will need to be economically ‘globile’, but qualities of discipline and determination that will enrich them far more profoundly as people.


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (n.d.) Draft shape of the Australian Curriculum: Languages. Retrieved April 14, 2013, from

Cutshall, S. (2008). Bridging cultures through languages. The Language Educator, 3(1), 32–37.

Mueller, F. (2012). Language is everyone’s responsibility. Professional Educator, 11(4), 29–31.

Pearson, N. (2011). Radical hope: Education and equality in Australia. Collingwood, Victoria: Black Inc.

Reese, S. (2009). The language roadmaps: Navigating the path forward. The Language Educator, 4(5), 40–44.

Rifkin, B. (2003). Guidelines for foreign language lesson planning. Foreign Language Annals, 36(2), 167–179.

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