Hey hang on! That has to be nonsense…

First, I should say that the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t do all that bad a job covering school education issues. However, I did say “Hey hang on! That has to be nonsense…” when I read this:

The proportion of students studying a foreign language for the Higher School Certificate is at a historic low and less than a fifth of what it was during the 1950s, new data shows.

The figures underline the challenge facing the new Abbott government, which has set a target of 40 per cent of high school students studying a foreign language within a decade and called for greater engagement with Asia.

Only 8 per cent of the more than 75,000 students enrolled in the HSC this year will sit a foreign language test when the written exams begin on October 14, down from more than 50 per cent in the ’50s.

OK, for starters there was no HSC in the 1950s. The HSC started in 1967: I know because I taught the first one at Cronulla High that year! Before then was the Leaving Certificate at the end of five years of high school. Most students left at the end of what we now call Year 9. In 1955, the year I started high school – and that’s me in 1955 on the right — only 16.6% of boys and 12.8% of girls in NSW  completed to the Leaving Certificate exam. OK, let’s say that most of THOSE may have been doing French, German or Latin. I am not sure of the exact numbers there. In my own school, Sydney Boys High, I think everyone going to the Leaving did a foreign language, usually French though one class did German.  But of those who had any post-Primary education in the 1950s, what percentage completed High School while retaining study of a foreign language? The number must have been very small. So I would challenge that “more than 50 per cent” figure!  Over 50% of Leaving Certificate candidates probably, but Leaving Certificate students were such a tiny minority compared with HSC Year 12 students in 2013.


Even so, the state of foreign language learning in NSW in 2013 is cause for concern. Currently 8% of NSW HSC students study a foreign language. See also podcast Students Studying HSC Languages on the Decline on 2GB at the NSW Modern Languages Teachers’ Association site.

Tony Abbott and his rather revolting Education Minister have both done a bit of a “no child will be living in poverty” on this one, pledging that they want “40 per cent of high school students to be studying a foreign language within a decade” – a laudable aim. Note the wording does not however say “final year students”.  Even so, Christopher Pyne has acknowledged the 40% aspiration may not happen. Speaking at an Independent Education Union (read “private schools”) Conference – where else? – Mr Pyne managed to muddy matters with his usual young fogey arch-reactionary blather:

”We’ll get to the 40 per cent of year 10s, I think, sooner than we’ll get to the 40 per cent of year 11s and 12s but we want to give it a go,” he told an Independent Education Union conference in Canberra on Thursday. Mr Pyne said foreign language study should be encouraged but he appeared to muddy his message by hailing Australia’s monolingual status as one of its ”great strengths”.

”We speak English and that’s given us a great advantage in terms of economic opportunities around the world and being much more simple to administer than, say, a country like India, which has, I think, 600 different languages,” he said.

In his first speech since becoming a minister, Mr Pyne told the IEU he would improve consultation with the non-government school sector, be less secretive and ensure the Coalition was ”the best friend teachers have ever had”…

I rather doubt that.

In NSW right now it appears all Year 7-8 students:

…must study at least 100 hours in one language, to be completed over one continuous 12-month period. The 100-hour course must cover the Stage 4 outcomes and content of the chosen language syllabus, and must be studied between Years 7–10, but preferably in Years 7–8.

The Board has developed syllabuses in the following languages for the mandatory course:
• Aboriginal Languages
• Arabic
• Chinese
• Classical Greek
• French
• German
• Hebrew
• Indonesian
• Italian
• Japanese
• Korean
• Latin
• Modern Greek
• Russian
• Spanish
• Turkish
• Vietnamese.

When students have completed the mandatory 100 hours of language study, they may continue the study of that language as an elective for the School Certificate and/or choose to study another language.

Another Herald story featured this graphic:


Now of course this is what happens when many more students stay until Years 11 and 12 than used to, and where what once was the province of TAFE has entered the HSC arena. And not a bad thing either, since the thought that all the 17-year-olds in the state should be doing the kinds of courses that the minority did who sought the Leaving Certificate and Matriculation in the 1950s is plainly absurd. Ancient History’s popularity remains an interesting phenomenon.

I could rave on more, but won’t. Among my sources have been: Developing the Wyndham Scheme:  A Case Study of Geography Education in NSW, Australia (PDF) by James Leigh 2005; Government Schools in NSW from 1848: Facts and Figures; The Leaving Certificate in New South Wales from 1939 to 1962 (PDF) by Stephen Curtis; and I note a book, Aspects of the Decline in Foreign Language Enrolments in New South Wales High Schools by D J Crukshank, University of Newcastle 1974. Yes, 1974.

See also a slideshare by Ken Cruikshank, a keynote presentation at the Modern Language Teachers Association of NSW Conference in March 2013.


5 thoughts on “Hey hang on! That has to be nonsense…

  1. Mmm, Neil. On this one, I would politely suggest that you have gone off on a tangent, interestingly so because we have actually discussed it.

    Is it correct that a higher proportion of Australian students at all secondary levels studied a foreign language in the 1950s and indeed before than today? Note, I say at secondary levels. That has to be almost certainly true. If you were in the A stream in most schools then you effectively had to study a foreign language, mainly Latin or French or both in your first years. So I did two years french and three years latin, failing rather badly. After the intermediate certificate, at least by the 1960s, the numbers doing a foreign language in the last two years dropped sharply. part of the reason for that is that it was no longer necessary to have a language to matriculate. You could do that so long as you had maths.

    It is also correct that the number studying foreign languages at university has, in proportional terms, collapsed. The New England University College was established in 1938. Today it would be incomprehensible that, with a very limited initial staff, you must start with courses in French and German. Even in the 1960s at UNE, it was required in certain disciplines that you must have a working knowledge of German in particular to do certain honours classes.

    The collapse in languages at school and and especially university level,is multi-faceted, a reflection of social and cultural change. In simple terms, why bother? The curriculum is crowded. A language doesn’t help you get a job. You don’t need to study one unless made to.Added force is given by the growth of English as a dominant language.

    To my mind, most of the current discussion on languages in schools misses the point because it doesn’t address the reasons for the decline in language studies, doesn’t really address why we should study them beyond nostrums. Sitting on my shelves are eldest’s Bahasa text books. I saved them from the tip for reference purposes.They are quite good, but no use to her because the course was just an intro course done in isolation.

    Ironically, my impression is that there has been an explosion in private language studies. More people are studying modern Greek or Italian in short courses than ever before. Why? In the growing love affair between many Australians and Europe, they want this to travel! .

  2. First off I agree with the basic point that foreign languages have struggled at the HSC in recent years in comparison with other subjects and further that there has been some problem getting enough qualified teachers.

    On the other hand the point I am also making is that only a very privileged minority completed the full range of secondary education in my/our day. The 1955 figures — “only 16.6% of boys and 12.8% of girls in NSW completed to the Leaving Certificate exam” — reflect that. By 1960 it had risen to 26.9% boys and 20.8% girls completing high school. In 2005 it was 60.3% boys 71.4% girls in NSW, to Year 12 by then of course. It strikes me that we should be expressing the numbers taking a foreign language to the end of high school as a proportion of all those who commenced secondary education.

    The way this has been reported, and also in the 2GB interview with the woman from the Modern Language Teachers Association, gives the impression that something like 50% of students in high schools in the 1950s took a foreign language to the end of their secondary education. Seeing that no more than 25% of students completed secondary education in the 1950s this is plainly impossible. Even if 100% of Leaving students had taken a language, which they did not, that would still have been no more than c25% in the 1950s of that secondary school cohort,

    Sure for the lucky ones like us, who wanted to matriculate, the cream of that c25%, a language was, if I recall, a matriculation requirement at the two available universities, Sydney and New England! I am not sure what “New South Wales University of Technology” — as it was until 1958 — required then. So yes, I did French in such a way that I could never have conversed with a French speaker, though I did read the language moderately well by the Leaving. (I got an “A”.)

    So we find things happening like this at Cronulla High, for example. At SBHS when I worked there Years 7 and 8 did introductory French, German, Latin, Mandarin and Classical Greek. So in principle at least right now 100% of NSW secondary school students do some foreign language study — there clearly would be exceptions for a number of reasons. At its best this study can be very interesting, especially when it involves exchange visits — real and virtual — with sister schools in the relevant countries. That not so many students go on to language study in the HSC years is a shame, I think. Sometimes this is because senior language study is seen as hard work; at other times languages are just squeezed out by time and limitations on choice.

    All that said, the decline of Indonesian, so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, has been sad. And of course I agree with much in your comment too.

    • Lynne put a 1965 video on Sydney on youtube that had me swept with nostalgia, Neil! Only a minority actually completed the LC, but those who didn’t were still sure of a job, expected to buy a house, still had reasonable expectations. Today, you can do year 12 or even uni and struggle to get a job. And as for owning your own home, that’s a pipe dream.

      I understand your position on misinterpretation, and in any case the comparison is pretty meaningless. Still, and being pedantic, completion of secondary education means when you left, not completing the LC. Those who left at the IC had completed their secondary education. I think that the mandatory 100 hours is a nonsense. It gives you a bit of culture perhaps, but it’s not language training. That was my point on Helen who did those 100 hours, in her case Bahasa. . .

      Thinking about it, I would challenge the whole concept that you must do a foreign language at school. I would also argue that if you are to do it, then the concept needs to be refined. I am not sure that I can put this clearly. Still. If we really want Australians to be multilingual, we take one language. Say Indonesian. We make it a compulsory part of the primary/kindergarten curriculum. By the end of primary school, each child has to be able to carry a conversation in that language. If all the kids can do it, it becomes reinforcing because they talk to each other.

      From secondary, languages are voluntary. But by then, the kids will have learned the basic skills required to learn a new language. .

  3. I meant by “completion” reaching the last year for the final qualification, perhaps reflecting the USA idea of the “high school drop-out” — but yes, my brother “completed” at the age of 14 and 6 months at Sutherland Intermediate High without ever getting the Intermediate. My mother “completed” in Primary School! But for the sake of the implied comparisons in the recent stories I think my point is well made — but then I would think that!

    Meanwhile, on the benefits of the current program of foreign language study in NSW I submit a photo of my grandnephew and grandniece with Japanese visitors they got to know through the foreign language program at another Shire school, Heathcote. Can only be good!

    My grandnephew and grandniece with Japanese freinds

    • BTW — 100 hours translates if I remember rightly to 3 periods a week. In fact at SBHS I often sat in on such lessons as ESL Support teacher and I was impressed by what they could accomplish! See my Powerpoint on this!

      Damn! That’s the short version which focuses on English classes. Looks like I have lost the long version that included language classes.

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