LOTE Conference in Melbourne 2008

LOTE Conference on 9 May, 2008 has been an exciting and invigorating event. The mood was due principally to the new government’ s expressed recognition of the importance of languages, the affirmative attitude towards language studies within the school curriculum, and the desirability of bilingualism and multilingualism in Australia, particularly in its role within the region and internationally.

The keynote speaker was Susan Pascoe, Chair of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO. She spoke of the stance of UNESCO regarding languages, and about predominance of English or indeed predominance of large majority languages. UNESCO believes in diversity of languages, bilingualism and multilingualism, along with education and literacy for the improvement of the disadvantaged of the world. It is dismayed that many languages are fast disappearing, and that language studies are diminishing.

UNESCO position on languages: * Languages are important for communication, identity formation, social integration, education, development and global harmony * It is estimated that 50% of the world’s 2,000 languages will disappear within a few generations as they are not part of official, legal or media communication * 96% of these languages are spoken by 4% of the world’s population * UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day (February 21) commemorates the massacre of Bangladeshi students protesting for the recognition of Bangla as a state language

In multicultural Australia, where a great deal has been done to promote language studies and maintain mother tongue, the proportion of Year 12 Students studying LOTE has nevertheless fallen from 40% in 1960 to 13% in 2007. Susan Pascoe said that is the right time for action, particularly in view of the new government’s expressed attitude towards language studies. She set out a number of implications for planning and action by language professionals and institutions:

* Time is right politically and educationally for LOTE studies to be reinvigorated * Bodies such as the MLTAV and VCAA can contribute as well as National Curriculum Council, academics, national professional bodies and policy makers. * Range of issues to be considered: – policy (supply of teachers, compulsory at what levels) – strategic (reaching national agreement) – professional (teacher quality and consistency) – educational (balancing European and Asian LOTEs) * Creative period of engagement ahead.

Lia Tedesco, the current President of Federation of Modern Languages Teachers’ Associations Inc. and involved in state and national initiatives on language education in Australia, presented a review on the state of language study in Australia. She reported on the decline during the last 10 years. In 2001, 140 languages were taught in schools, by 2005 the number had shrunk to 133 languages. From 15% Higher School Certificate for language study, a drop to 13%. She praised Victoria for its high level of language teaching in the school system (70%). However this high percentage included a range of language courses, culture awareness classes and lower primary levels and does not take account of low numbers at Year 12 level. It is of even greater concern, that the other states have a considerably lower proportion, New South Wales 35%, Queensland only 5% of school curriculum.

The new government stance in regard to languages in the curriculum is most encouraging. It is noteworthy that language studies emerged as educational, strategic and security priorities at 20/20 summit. The Age 21 April reported that ‘there has been a catastrophic decline in the number of Australians who speak foreign languages.(and that)..this creates a serious future risk because it reduces Australia’s ability to communicate with its neighbours.’ There was an understanding expressed that ‘if Australians cannot speak a country’s language, they cannot understand its culture’ (prof Lindsay) Council of Australian Governments (COAG) as the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia has been reestablished and its role upgraded. It will be chaired by the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and includes State Premiers. The seven working groups, to meet four times in a year, include the school curriculum working group, chaired by Julia Gillard, with language study as the chief priority.

Most interesting was the address by prof Michael Clyne. In his inimitable way he explained the significance of our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd action on his visit to China, when he demonstrated the importance of language by speaking impeccable Mandarin Chinese. According to Michael Clyne, he made an even stronger case for languages, by presenting himself as Trusted Friend (zhengyou), – formal high register language use – and referring to close relations between China and Australia while at the same time expressing a critical view of the Tibet situation – a brilliant stroke of diplomacy due to sophisticated knowledge of language and culture. Michael Clyne was rather more critical of Kevin Rudd’s proposal to establish four priority regional languages – Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Korean and Japanese. In his view this would stem our national potential and close the opportunities for other languages which may become important in the future. He also pointed out that the proposal ignores the community languages, even those that are represented by large numbers – Vietnamese, Hindi, Italian, Greek, for example. He was also critical of the tendency to ignore the native speakers (200,000 Mandarin Chinese, 55,000 Indonesian, 42,000 Korean) who speak their mother tongue at home, and are Australian citizens. Should these languages be called foreign languages?

It was the general opinion expressed by the speakers at the conference that establishing four regional priority languages for school curriculum is not in the interest of the individual or the nation. It ignores the personal need to maintain and extend the knowledge of the mother tongue, i.e. heritage language. The importance of community languages in Australian society is well established particularly in Victoria, where a flexible school curriculum allows for response to a local community and inclusion of the relevant community language into the school system.

A special event was the launch of new website Olympic Resources for Primary Languages Teachers – sponsored by MLTAV( http://corporate.olympics.com.au/index.cfm?p=737). The resource includes nine LOTE (Languages Other Then English) lessons available in nine languages: Arabic, Chinese, Croatian, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. Modern Greek is to be included soon. This series of LOTE lessons is designed to prepare students for Olympic Day – a school sporting and cultural event held in the target language/s being taught at the school. Through these lessons, students develop the second language skills to prepare for, participate in and contribute to the Olympic Day.

A pletora of language resource materials were shown at the conference, books, and class sets were donated as raffle prizes. There were interesting work-shop offerings, with a range of issues, such as assessment at various levels and the effective and meaningful way of teaching and assessing language awareness as part of the communicative language skills.

Andrew Ferguson, the President of MLTAV closed the LOTE Conference 2008, with a call for action, with three main points for the participants to consider and act upon:

1. Quality language program – quality speaks for itself, it is the best advertisement 2. Networking – with colleagues, school leaders, language associations, community, etc 3. Advocacy – too often language specialists only talk to each other. They must talk persuade people outside the profession, and develop strategies to play a more visible role in schools and community.

The LOTE Conference 2008 ended with a cocktail party, where several individuals were honored for their contribution to language teaching over a long period of time. Aleksandra (Sasha) Ceferin and Flora Osorio received a Certificate of Merit for Exceptional and Outstanding Contribution to Languages Teaching in Victoria; Faye Harris and Wendy Morris were awarded MLTAV life membership, for exceptional contribution to MLTAV and LOTE studies.

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Aleksandra Ceferin
Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers' Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.