Today, the Group of Eight universities (Australia’s version of the Ivy League, or Russel Group) has called for languages to be compulsory until year 10 (16 years). It seems that less than 6% of final year students in Australia can speak a language other than English – though, this figure is suffixed with the qualification “in some areas”.

I agree completely, since I was one of those who finished from High School with only rudimentary knowledge of any foreign language, that is, I could count to 100 in Italian (through rote memory, mind you) or say very nasty things about your mother in Mandarin (Xie xie, Yang Yang).

Due to the conditions of my degree, I was obliged to undertake 28 credit points (about 8 courses) of a language. I chose Italian, purely because I was working for Italians at the time and thought – erroneously – that they might be able to help me out. Now I can also say very nasty things about your mother in Siciliano (Grazie, Giuseppe).

I was discussing this just today with my professor – he and another member of staff were kind enough to attend my graduation – who studied at a couple of universities in the US. Over there, it seems, tertiary education is much more liberal, in the liberal arts sense of the word. Students must study a language, a hard science, a social science as well as a few other requirements, before specialising into majors in second year. In Australia on the other hand, it is perfectly possible to go through one’s entire degree without diverging from their favoured subject areas. The idea of my degree, Bachelor of Liberal Studies, was to move towards the US system, thus producing well-balanced educated graduates, able to hold down a conversation in a wide range of areas.

So if making a language compulsory until year 10 is another step in this direction, I’m all for it. Especially since we Australians are so overwhelmingly monolingual (despite having a huge concentration of distinct pre-colonial languages, but that’s another rant). More High School students learning Cymraeg, isiXhosa or Pitjantjatjara would certainly be welcome.

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June 2: This story has been taken up by the Herald in a bit more detail. It reveals that the more appropriate figure is that 13% of school leavers have a second language, down from the 1960s figure of 40%.