Students stop taking Asian languages in senior years

Students stop taking Asian languages in senior years

Figures show primary and secondary enrolments in all four of the state’s priority Asian languages grew between 2010 and 2012. Photo: Bob PearceFull SMH Education coverageRelated story: Geography loses as HSC students map their futures
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Senior high school students in NSW are giving up on Asian languages at an astonishing rate, despite growth among younger students.

Between 2010 and 2012, the number of high school students learning Chinese grew by 42 per cent to almost 10,000. Yet, over the same period, the number of HSC students studying the language shrunk by 27 per cent. And figures released last week show just 902 HSC students studied Chinese this year, a 5 per cent drop from last year.

The president of the Board of Studies NSW, Tom Alegounarias, said it was likely students were not convinced a language gave them the competitive edge it once did.

”To the extent that studying a language is a functional advantage for interacting globally, the paradox is that as the world globalises, you don’t need another language and people are aware of that,” he said. ”Everyone that goes to China knows you can get around pretty well with English.”

Figures provided by the NSW Department of Education and Communities show primary and secondary enrolments in all four of the state’s priority Asian languages grew between 2010 and 2012. A large proportion of those high school students would have learnt the language as part of the state’s compulsory 12-month course.

But the proportion of students continuing to more advanced study in the senior years continues to slide, with Fairfax Media revealing last week that the rate of students studying a foreign language for the HSC is at a historic low of just 8 per cent.

The director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the University of Melbourne, Jane Orton, said that when it came to the high-stakes HSC exams students are deterred by having to compete with classmates who have grown up around the language.

”There are kids who would like to go on but they just literally can’t afford it for their futures,” she said. ”It’s like having a race for the under 12s. You can’t have long-legged 15-year-olds racing down. Of course they’re going to win.”

She said the continued push for Asian languages by successive governments was not having the desired effects.

”They seem to throw money at it rather than invest money in it,” she said. ”If they are doing it for national interest, they need to hothouse just as they do for sport.”

Mr Alegounarias says the challenging nature of Asian languages might also partly account for the drop-off.

‘‘There is a different cultural and theoretical linguistic underpinning which actually makes it harder to study those languages, particularly if you’re competing with students of that background,’’ he said.

A senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of New England, Dr Liz Ellis, says ‘‘the closer a  language is in structure and general orientation, the easier it tends to be to learn.’’

French, for example, would typically be easier and quicker for an English speaker to learn than Mandarin.

This year 663 HSC students took French as a beginner, while only 52 students took Chinese as a beginner.

Dr Ellis there is a lot of evidence that bilingualism can enhance cognitive abilities.

‘‘There certainly is research that shows [a link between bilingualism and academic performance] because it expands their facility for thinking and their understanding and ability to think creatively,’’ she said.

Dr Orton says more parents need to value the learning of language, beyond just employment opportunities.

‘‘A lot of parents take an increasingly utilitarian view of school, so it’s a question of will it get you a job,’’ she said.

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.