Michael McLaren: As I said, regarding languages – the study of languages is declining. I think it’s a shame to see that. The number of students taking on a second language has significantly fallen in the last 50 years from 40 per cent of year 12 students to just 12 per cent today. It’s a big drop in anyone’s books. 

Now, the Federal Government is trying to bring the numbers back up but I think that is a good initiative.  They’re throwing a bit of money at this and they’re starting it when the kids are young. In fact, they’re starting with a tablet application in pre-school years. Now, people are studying one of five languages using this: Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian, French and Arabic. And the results of the initial trial were released today. 

Simon Birmingham is the Federal Minister for Education and Training. He’s behind all of this, he’s on the line. Minister Birmingham, good to have your company.

Simon Birmingham: Good afternoon Michael and good afternoon to your listeners.

Michael McLaren: How did the result- how did the trial go? The results are in today – a success, failure or otherwise?

Simon Birmingham:  A relative success. We’re quite encouraged by this trial which operated across 41 pre-schools and saw some 1600 or so pre-schoolers aged four and five participating in learning these different languages. Now it’s very much about providing them with something that is engaging for children that young. So it’s using technology which we all know that young children embrace very quickly and trying to put it to use in a manner that gives a good educational outcome, not just a course of fun and games for them. But for the kids themselves, they look at it, these applications are essentially games-based so it engages them, it’s fun but it’s talking to them in one of these five different languages that you said in your introduction. 

And we really know from that that it can have two effects: one is to hopefully to advance their language skills; start them on a path of learning another language. But also that learning a second language, or a third language in some cases, at a very young age really does of course enhance other learning capabilities for the young children as well, and can give them a great start in terms of the rest of their schooling too.

Michael McLaren: You know, I think that’s true. What’s the Government hoping to achieve here with this multimillion dollar investment and broadening the breadth of languages that Australian know fluently? What’s the end goal here? Is there innovation in mind? Is there- I know that’s the buzz word at the moment – is there productivity gains that you envisage down the track?

Simon Birmingham: Look, there are a number of outcomes we hope for this. At the very big picture level we would hope that we do have an increase, a reversal of that decline in the number of students at year 12 level and senior secondary level studying a different language.

Michael McLaren: Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: Because it’s really important, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, that our students are as connected as possible and they have an understanding of economies and countries like Indonesia and China with whom we’ll be doing increasing trade in the years to come, notwithstanding some of the turbulence on markets we see at present that you were speaking about before …

Michael McLaren: [Interrupts] Because it is- sorry to interrupt but it is also true, isn’t it, Minister, that if you study a language you don’t just study the words, you also tend to get immersed part of the culture as well? And I suppose that can help build business relationships and understanding of different cultural practices?

Simon Birmingham:  Absolutely. And that is very much an essential part of the journey and indeed is embedded in some of the applications that have been developed as part of this learning experience. 

It also, of course, is exploring for us how we can deliver in a low-cost manner specialised learning opportunities at the pre-school level where you won’t necessarily have specialist teachers. We’ve got very good pre-school educators and they’re getting more highly trained each year that goes by. But what we’re learning out of this we’ll now be able to apply as well in how we can use similar technologies to get maths and science into the pre-school environment as well. 

And as part of the Innovation Statement released last year we’ve committed some $6 million to start a very similar process. And ultimately what we would hope across languages, across maths and science, is that every pre-school across Australia will eventually be able to access these types of technologies and that their educators there will be able to give kids a very rich learning experience.

Michael McLaren: Tell you what, we’re getting in early: pre-school, crikey. I think when I went to pre-school it was numbers and finger painting.

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs] Well, that’s right and [indistinct] …

Michael McLaren: [Interrupts] English was the language we tried [laughs]

Simon Birmingham: … really important. I was with John Alexander out at the Top Ryde Early Learning Centre this morning and a wonderful early learning centre it is.

Michael McLaren: Yes.

Simon Birmingham:  And whilst it was great to see the kids at work there on the iPads, it’s safe to say that the educators are also very conscious that that fades into part of the day. It’s a finite amount of time and it’s just as important as their being creative with their hands, that they’re getting out on in the sand pit – that they’re doing all of those things which four and five year olds do too.

Michael McLaren: [Talks over] Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s very true, that’s very true. 

Now, just two quick ones to finish up then if I could Minister. Firstly, I suppose, you know, I would argue, as someone who’s dabbled in a few different languages, you know, jack of all trades, master of none, by all intents and purposes there. That having a second language under your belt is an incredible asset, although there is a part of me that also says well, in some respects we have been blessed by virtue of the fact we were colonised by the English all those hundreds of years ago and English really is the global language. 

And right around the world – be it in China or be it in- on continental Europe, South America, others part of the world, they are drilling their students with English. And that is the language of course as that is our lingua franca. What- is there really a need, some people would say, to spend money to broaden our understanding of other languages when everyone is learning ours?

Simon Birmingham:  You are very right that we are very lucky in Australia that the dominant language of global business is English and that has served us well and meant that we’ve continued to be very successful despite that downturn in the number of Australians studying another language. 

But I think for the reasons we discussed before, partly about a better understanding of the cultures of the countries we’ll increasingly be doing business with. And it is only in the last few years that China has become our number one trading partner in the world. That’s just so important that we do have those cultural understandings and language understandings as well can really help in building those business ties. 

Michael McLaren: Yeah.

Simon Birmingham: But also as I emphasised before the fact that the agility of the mind, the neurological development of young children, all the research says is enhanced where they have the early exposure to other languages. So …

Michael McLaren: [Interrupts] Yeah.

Simon Birmingham:  … even if the language itself is never fully learnt or they never actually go on to apply it in their day to day lives, all the scientific and academic research indicates that you can get far better outcomes for children by encouraging this at an early age. 

Michael McLaren: Sure. And just quickly in conclusion there I suppose the question I must ask is why do you know the reason behind the big decline in languages, certain second languages? Is it because well, for example, a lot of people in the past would learn Latin at school because they wanted to go into medicine or law. I don’t- or in the classics. It’s not really required for that anymore. Is that part of the story or is it we’re just changing our habits?

Simon Birmingham: That would be a little part of the story. I think it was also, if you go back to the 60s and to the 70s it was probably more accepted that to go onto university you were probably continuing a language almost right through your secondary schooling. So there’s been a drop away there. 

We do have a challenge now in terms of the number of qualified teachers in these fields. And that’s why it’s really important that we invest in teacher training, which we’re doing. And we’re requiring that primary school teachers, as part of a comprehensive approach to dealing with the decline in languages in the future must in their training either adopt a specialisation in a language or in maths or in science. So those areas where we’re struggling to have skilled teachers in the classrooms we’re now making sure that the universities in their training are required to ensure there is a specialisation …

Michael McLaren: [Interrupts] Yeah.

Simon Birmingham:  … so that future primary school teachers have to, you know, help carry this right through a child’s schooling.

Michael McLaren: Good to talk, good initiative, well done. Simon Birmingham, I thank you for giving us some time this afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: A pleasure, anytime.

Michael McLaren: It’s a pleasure. That’s the Federal Minister for Education and Training there, Simon Birmingham.

Minister Birmingham’s media contact:
                   James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                    Nick Creevey, 0447 644 957
Department Media:                                                    media@education.gov.au