Australia’s multiculturalism predates the arrival of the Europeans; in the late 18th Century, there were between 350 and 750 distinct Australian social groupings, and a similar number of languages. Further diversity has resulted from waves of immigration dating from the gold rush years to more recent arrivals. To say we have a rich and fecund linguistic terrain barely credits the linguistic diversity of the 350 home languages recorded in the last census.
Against the backdrop of this richness and diversity, however, senior secondary language enrolments have been in decline since the 1960s. Meanwhile, the world is demanding globally competent citizens and language learning is a key ingredient to success in this area.
If your child is already learning a language, great! However, ‘practice makes confident’. For a skill that has such a performative focus, confidence is key. How can your child (or even better the whole family) supplement their school study or take on a whole new language? Here are ten useful tips for learners at all stages of their second language adventure.
1. Seek out community
Multicultural Australia is teeming with rich linguistic resources often languishing in the minds; and in some cases, ‘rotting in the mouths’ of native speakers, as the poet Sujata Bhatt phrased it in her piece titled, ‘Search for My Tongue’. Connect your child to these resources and enjoy the social side of language appreciation as a family. This will be a far better imitation of the language acquisition that occurs in bilingual communities. There are numerous organisations which unite speakers of different languages in our community. For example, Alliance Française (meaning ‘French Alliance’) has classes and conversation groups in most capital cities and regional centres. They hold dinner parties, pastry mornings and other fun – and delicious – events. For Italian, there are clubs and community colleges in most cities which offer classes and conversation. Whatever your language, there will be something in your city.
2. Can’t get out and about? Let the internet be your virtual community
The Asia Education Foundation, while geared to schools, provides various free resources and information about paid ones. Languages include Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean and Vietnamese. Students can play games, work through online readers and generally explore. Language learning apps may add to screen time but they are fantastic for building confidence. They provide the opportunity to practice in private with a feedback loop. Products which include Virtual Reality are particularly useful because of the ‘in real life’ feeling of immersion they create.
A particularly interesting resource is the First Languages Australia resource bank and contributors are always adding new content. The Australian Curriculum has included Australian Indigenous languages to its list of languages offered and the benefits to social cohesion are promising. Why not visit and see what your local traditional language is?
3. Visit the library
Find your child’s favourite book in the target language. If it’s bilingual, even better. This way they can compare their favourite passages and learn as they go.
4. Switch phone language
Your child not much of a reader? No problem. Switch their phone into their target language. It’s incredible how much you can learn from app prompts and your phone’s operating system. This is also a great way for children to learn real youth vernacular, as many apps mirror youth culture. Extra apps can be added, such as fitness and budgeting or wellbeing apps, to broaden the range of vocabulary presented to your budding linguist.
5. At the movies
See if you can change your child’s favourite movies into the target language with English subtitles. Not only does this tune their ear to the rhythms, intonation and stress patterns of the target language, it improves English reading at the same time.
6. A pre-tech classic
Label everything in your house with sticky notes. Admittedly, this only covers household items, but you can expand this to magazines and other visual and reading materials to broaden the scope.
7. Find an international pen pal
As a child, I had an Italian pen pal which was a wonderful experience. If there’s a language teacher at your school (and there should be!), ask them to connect you with a teacher of your target language to help you set up a pen pal relationship.
8. Say ‘yes’ to that exchange student
When an email comes from school asking for host families for an upcoming student exchange, say ‘yes’. If your school does not have an exchange program, you can always connect with an exchange provider. Host students are visiting to learn and improve their English, but are usually happy chat with your little linguist in their native language.
9. Get an au pair
I have managed to work from home with four children, thanks to the help of an au pair. I speak French, Italian and German. I have opted for speakers of those languages in order to practise my languages, and to provide opportunity for my children to develop ‘an ear’ for languages. If you have the space, and need some child care, consider this arrangement.
10. Travel abroad
If you have the means, take your child to the country of the target language for as long as you can. If you can’t, and they’re old enough, send them on their own. With four children, it’s a major undertaking for us to get to Europe. Consequently, my 13-year-old son will go to Germany on a student exchange in 2021. We will send him to a family friend in Germany for some ‘priming’ next year.
These are my tips, as a language teacher and researcher, learner, and parent. There are some key themes which unite them all. In 1975, a PhD student called Joan Rubin studied what the habits of a ‘good language learner’ can teach us. She found that a good language learner is a good guesser; is willing to appear foolish to get his message across, and, finally, will try out their new knowledge.
While these are habits and attitudes that you cannot force your children to adopt, they all depend on two key factors that are within parental control. These are self-confidence through safe, supported practice, and exposure. To gain exposure for your language learners, it’s vital to capitalise on every opportunity – especially those that are free, easy to arrange, and can be accessed in the comfort of your own home.