Speech to French Synergies Conference

Simon Birmingham: Thank you Collette and bonjour [speaks French] I won’t subject you to my French. They say that somebody who can speak three languages is trilingual and somebody who can speak two languages is bilingual, unfortunately today you have standing before you somebody who can only speak the one language, so that of course…

Unidentified Speaker: That’s curable.

Simon Birmingham: … it is curable indeed.


Simon Birmingham: At some stage it may absolutely be [indistinct] of doing so. My [indistinct] my four-year-old’s mandarin is improving quite well with my four-year-old daughter [indistinct] although she will no doubt outstrip me very quickly I’m sure.

Uncle Frank thank you for that welcome to country and I acknowledge the [indistinct] and all Australia’s traditional owners, whose knowledge we continue to learn more about, to build upon as a nation and indeed proudly this language we work much harder to preserve as a nation today and to ensure are understood and preserved for future generations. To the many, many distinguishing guests, your excellency the French Ambassador in Australia, Vice Chancellor thank you for your welcome. Lord Mayor, Mayor, honorary consul, ladies and gentlemen all thank you so much for being here and my state parliamentary colleagues who I ‘ve not said hello to but he must be here [indistinct] John Gardiner, the shadow education minister, welcome as well.

It’s wonderful to have this conference back here in Adelaide even if it’s perhaps not the most wonderful time to be in Adelaide. I trust though that you will of course live up with that wonderful French fighting spirit and to ensure that despite the climatic challenges around you all, you will have not only a productive time here but indeed make the most of the opportunity of being together to have a wonderful time and I’m a little jealous to hear of wine and cheese to come at the end of today.

As you would all appreciate, the evidence is very clear from the OECD, from researchers throughout the world of the cognitive benefits in learning and brain science that’s found that learning a language occurs at the most effective time at the earliest years. That’s not to say it’s not too late for those of us a little more aged but early year exposure to generating language learning are the times when we get the greatest benefit not just in learning the language but in the range of other cognitive and educational ways. It’s for these reasons that our government has sought to really try to boost some focus in those early years in relation to the learning of languages, starting at the absolute foundation years. We’ve been trialling as many of you would hear the Early Languages Learning Australia program, a multi-million dollar investment in trying to get languages into Australia’s preschools as a foundation stone for interest and development in language skills. 

There are currently around 287 preschool services participating in the ELLA trial across Australia, 73 which I’m pleased to say are providing the French ELLA language apps to preschool children including a number here in South Australia such as the two [indistinct] centres which are quite close to the Flinders campus here. Through ELLA, a group of award winning innovative tablet applications called the Polyglots are helping children from nearly 300 preschools across Australia to learn Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, French or Arabic. Our government is seeking to roll the program out to all preschools nationally, make it available right across Australia in 2017 and we’ll further extend some of the language options that are available under ELLA. This program ticks a number of boxes as the educational resource, it’s backed by evidence, it seeks to inspire students, it gets parents involved in the education and it’s useful for educators. It’s also seeking to ensure that there is exposure to language in those earliest years, in fields where it’s challenging to have fluent language speakers, [indistinct] at least set that inspiration that interest and hopefully a base of understanding of understanding upon which schools and other educational opportunities can build. 

Early evaluations have found schools and their parents taken to the Polyglots app with enthusiasm. Initiatives like this help children learn to love another language. They will also as I said enrich the child’s brain, help them to navigate the second language which provides immense other cognitive benefits. There is considerable volume of research that shows learning a second language in those early years improves cognitive development, problem solving skills, efficiency in the first [indistinct] and strengthens brain memory function associated. 

At school and in life more broadly languages are an excellent foundation for all learning, learning about another culture stimulates of course awareness and maturity in children and their understanding of the broader world. My girls are four and five at present and an interesting challenge is to get them to appreciate space, distance, geography. Sense of language, sense of other places helps with that. In some ways it’s far easier I find to explain the concept of other places on the other side of the world than it is to explain when daddy’s in Canberra even though they’ve hopped on a plane and been to Canberra. So learning about language and other cultures can stimulate that awareness and maturity in children and their understanding of the world. Sharing in another culture’s celebrations of nationhood, freedom(*) spreads the sense of achievement and understanding of values that bind us together across the globe. As does, of course, the things that children [indistinct] most such as enjoying the foods of other cultures as well. Australia is a culturally diverse society and yet this is not sadly reflected in the number of students proficient in a foreign language. I am but a product of that, sadly.

French though still has the highest enrolment percentage of all languages in Australia, and that's why you're gathering here today and your work is so critically important, but we have a big challenge ahead of us. The proportion of year 12 students in Australia studying a language other than English has dropped from 40 per cent in the 1960s to just over 10 per cent today. We must work hard to try to change that. It won't be changed easily or overnight, but what better way is there to look to create improved opportunities of an economic nature, improved understanding of a cultural nature, improved ties of a security nature, and then of course the capacity that comes from the understanding of other nations and languages.

The Productivity Commission report in 2015, Barriers to Growth and Service Exports revealed that 60 per cent of respondents found the lack of information on local culture, business practices and language were impediments to Australia effectively doing business in the overseas markets. Well we live, clearly, in an increasingly globalised world, a world more globalised than it was when more Australians studied foreign languages, and yet we have this diverse, reverse trend in place. We've had great success as a nation in building new free trade agreements and currently are negotiating further free trade opportunities with the European Union in particular. We therefore need to equip our students with the language skills to help them make their way in the world and in the workforce of the future.

So in addition to our work that we undertake in trying to build preschool base, I'm very committed to working with my state and territory counterparts to do what is possible to try to lift language skills and uptake in Australia. In our policy document we released at the election outlining our approach to distribution of record schools funding and a range of different other reform measures across education, we identified the need for languages and have raised questions that I would welcome feedback from a gathering such as yours such, such as whether we need to actually contemplate easy visa process and more arrangements to get more skilled foreign language teachers into Australia to help with the challenge we have of trying to lift the uptake to languages.

Because of course we have reached a rather challenging point in the Australian system where how do you increase a mass uptake in language training and skilling if you don't have the mass number of teachers skilled in those languages in the first place. I do welcome the fact that some states are showing significant new initiatives, and I welcome the fact that here in South Australia the first French bilingual school and bi-national school will open enrolments in 2017. This is a really encouraging development, and means that those students will have half their lessons in French and the other half in English, a wonderful opportunity for them to get very intensive language skills.

This comes at a particularly significant time for South Australia's and Australia's ties with France, because today we will see joint ceremonies occurring in Canberra and Paris that will mark the signing of contracts that begin the new arrangements for the construction of future submarines. DCNS will be moving its key Australian staff from Canberra to Adelaide in the not-too-distant future, and will be establishing major facilities here, which of course will have significant workforce implications and enormous opportunities for the mutual flow of skilled employees between our two nations, working on these very important future investments.

Early down the track of education, beyond preschools or schools, we also recognise the need to strongly encourage engagement in our region. One of the signature policies of our government has been the re-establishment of development of the fact of the New Colombo Plan, and building of the Endeavour Mobility Grants. We are trying to prepare students for that global engagement through this plan. They support not just foreign language study, but importantly engagement with things abroad, and are key- and are a key part of our national strategy forward, international engagement. The New Colombo Plan, as some of you may be aware, is a signature initiative to lift Australia's knowledge and awareness, especially in the Indo-Pacific. Program supports our undergraduates to study and undertake internships in some 38 Indo-Pacific countries. This has supported thousands of young Australians who now travel and stay throughout the region.

Language proficiency is a key component to the program, and ultimately will deliver great returns to Australian students, and of course French language proficiency is an important part of that in a number of those Indo-Pacific nations. But our work isn't just focused on one or two initiatives. Obviously we have the Endeavour scholarships that have been in existence for a long period of time. They support fellowships, scholarships, mobility grants for Australians to go abroad and study in other nations. We are pursuing an MAU New Caledonians again [indistinct] Baccalaureate International option in 2017. The $600,000 grants Community Languages Australia or the Federation of Ethnic Schools Associations to run community language schools out of hours, as well as funding through the Teach for Australia program to also try to fast track specialist language teachers particularly into Australian disadvantaged schools.

There is no doubt that we can benefit from having more Australians, students learning languages, and as a government we think it's a very important time to try to do so. We hope that such students can acquire foundation skills that will ultimately help them to thrive in a global economy, but also Australia to thrive as well. We know that such contributions can make an enormous difference to their future and to our nation's future, and what I hope our gathering such as today is that you can help provide us with well-informed, audible, achievable ideas on how we can seek to better lift the uptake of languages, particularly in French, a lot of languages overall in Australia to get the most effective outcome for today's students and tomorrow's future Australian place in the world. I wish you every success and enjoyment in your deliberations. Thank you so much for the opportunity to come and join you today. Au revoir.