Remarks at the SBS National Languages Competition Awards Ceremony, Sydney

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Michael, for that welcome. Ninna marni: greetings, in the language of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains, my home city. In doing so, I acknowledge all of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, and as Minister for Education, acknowledge that as a nation we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture and, indeed, language, to build upon that as a nation well into the future together.

It’s a thrill to be with you today to celebrate the SBS National Languages Competition. Particularly, acknowledging the winners and their families who are here today; it’s a thrill to be here with you, as well as the extended SBS family.

I’m really thrilled to do so, because the learning of languages is something important to me both personally and professionally. Personally, I’m a proud dad of five and six-year-old daughters, and on most Saturday mornings, if Parliamentary and electorate duties don’t get in the way, you’ll find me in a dimly-lit church hall in suburban Adelaide engaging in a community Chinese Mandarin class with our kids and a group of other small children and their parents, Chinese for Families class. I have to say that the girls’ skills are advancing far more rapidly than mine. They can certainly get through the basic phrases and the counting, and certainly the understanding of characters much more than dad, and probably a little better than even mum, but it’s a wonderful example of the way in which, across Australia, people are embracing the opportunity and the desire to better connect with our region, to understand the value of languages, educationally, in terms of the cognitive development of young people, but also then of course culturally, socially and in terms of our connectedness to the outside world and the rest of the world, and in particular, as Michael acknowledged, to our region.

Professionally, as Minister for Education in the Turnbull Government, I’m pleased with a number of the steps that we’ve been able to take to try to better stimulate language learning in Australia. As Michael acknowledged, the speaking of foreign languages is widespread across Australia, but that is, of course, largely thanks to our migrant heritage. In terms of the learning of languages in our education system, we have, sadly, over recent decades, tended to trend more in the wrong direction.

We’ve sought to rebuild that in many ways, from the grassroots up, through investment and support of Community Languages Australia – and I acknowledge their work here in partnership with SBS – but also, in particular, at the very earliest stages of language. Our Early Learning Languages Australia program which has rolled out technology, app-based resources for language learning in thousands now in preschools across Australia is about trying to provide, at the very earliest stages of the educational experience, exposure to language to our youngest learners; the opportunity to now learn a range of different languages, which I’m pleased will be extended even further next year, giving them the chance – without necessarily having that skilled language teacher in their preschool – to be exposed to learn, for their early childhood educators to learn with them some of the basics that we hope will give them the inspiration to continue the language learning through their lives, as well as those very important early education benefits that are derived from exposure to foreign languages.

We know there is much more to be done, which is why we’ll continue to work closely with the states and territories to try to help to boost and drive the availability of language teachers in our schools, because that, of course, will be essential to those early learners being able to continue their pathway, their journey, of language discovery through their lives.

SBS plays a crucial role in terms of Australia’s recognition of multicultural communities, of our diverse history and heritage, and of course, of the richness of languages that are spoken in Australia. Today, thank you for the work you do across the board, but particularly in this National Languages Competition, for the work that you have done in acknowledging our schools and our educationalists and our teachers around the country who embrace the teaching of foreign languages, in celebrating their successes, and in highlighting some of those who, of course, are exemplars of success in terms of learning language and provide inspiration, hopefully, for many others to follow on from.

So congratulations to those who are our winners today, but congratulations too to all who have participated in the SBS National Languages Competition. There’s much to be proud of, there’s much to continue to celebrate and build upon, and I’m thrilled to be able to be with you today for this celebration. Thanks very much.