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24 Sep 2014

Benefits of Second Language Learning

The Hon. A.L. McLACHLAN ( 15:30 ): Thank you, Mr President, for that compliment. Earlier this month my attention was drawn to an announcement by the federal Liberal government of a new $9.8 million program that will deliver foreign language learning applications to preschools. This initiative will allow preschool children to begin learning a second language through playing educational games on tablet devices. It is an encouraging initiative. I have for some time held the view that it is important to provide our youth with the opportunity to learn another language. Perhaps my view has also been shaped by being married to a primary school teacher who drew my attention to the article.

If we are to become the great trading state which both sides of the chamber aspire to, we need to have the next generation looking beyond our shores for opportunities. The learning of a second language in our schools and the culture of the community in which it resides becomes critical if the state is to pursue its goals. Our trading partners will draw comfort that we are a tolerant society that is willing to engage on equal terms.

There is also the additional benefit in that such study promotes cultural awareness and tolerance at home. Yet disturbingly my reading has suggested that whilst research has proven that learning a second language has many benefits in both cognitive and social development, sadly, the number of Australians continuing with language learning throughout secondary and university education is declining.

Approximately 80 per cent of European children speak more than one language. Increasingly, many of their schools are now moving towards teaching not one but two foreign languages as they recognise the benefits children gain from learning multiple languages during their school years. Language learning encourages children to become more flexible and analytical in their approach to learning, and children who are bilingual have shown to have faster rates of cognitive and literacy development than those who are not. As well as improving cognitive development, learning a second language has also shown to develop children’s literacy in their mother tongue at a faster rate than monolingual children.

Whilst it was formerly believed that the process of learning a second language would interfere with the process of a child developing their mother tongue, recent research has shown that it actually assists in the development of literacy in the mother tongue at a much faster rate. It was also believed that a second language was stored in a separate part of the cognitive system; however, we now know that it is stored and is interactive with the mother tongue.

Whilst the words and grammar of different languages may differ, the concepts and strategies involved in making meaning from text exist across all written language and can be transferred between languages. This process assists to further broaden language skills and literacy.

The major benefit of learning a second language whilst still at school is simple. Children can and do learn second languages much easier and quicker than adults and, if continued throughout life, are far more likely to become fluent. In the last few decades research has proven that there is a fundamental difference between the way adults and children learn a second language. Whilst adults rely on knowledge and general cognition that they developed through learning their first language, children are more intuitive and rely on their innate language learning program. As well as providing benefits to children’s development, learning a second language also expands to their social life and provides greater employment opportunities in adulthood.

In recent years English has been replaced by Spanish as the second most spoken language in the world, with Mandarin still far out in front. Competence in one or more languages besides the mother tongue will become necessary in order to remain competitive, not only as a nation but as individuals in this ever-globalised world.

Whilst there are proven benefits of learning a second language in school, I understand that simply introducing and teaching the language does not assure that all these benefits will be reached by every child. For example, I acknowledge that children with dyslexia may need to concentrate on only their mother tongue. A child’s ability to reap all the benefits of language learning is determined by the quality of exposure to a language, the resources provided, the competence of the teacher, the method of teaching and the continuity of language learning. I encourage the government to continue to build language initiatives in this state as an important part of securing the state’s economic future as a trading nation.

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