Image: Professor Anne-Marie Morgan (third from right) at the Patji-Dawes Award, July 2019, which she chaired and presented to winners Sophia Mung and Brother Stephen Morelli.

“Being bilingual or multilingual is the norm around the world. It is unusual for a country to be predominantly monolingual, like Australia,” UNE education and language expert, Professor Anne-Marie Morgan, says.

Over many years, Professor Morgan has been working on ground-breaking research, policy and teaching frameworks in language education to help Australian schools incorporate richer language learning, which she says is essential for preparing young people to become global citizens. 

“On a political level, an Australian economy level, a human level and a compassion level, learning languages is a way to ensure the next generation of Australian citizens has the language and cultural insights required to engage with the world,” she says.  

While learning five or six languages at a young age is yet to be Australia’s norm, as it is in some places, such as Finland, Professor Morgan says we’re beginning to see change, supported by studies that continue to show the benefits of language learning.

“Language learning is a priority on both sides of politics, and all states and territories are making commitments to better incorporate languages in schools.

“Now that we are able to use brain imaging and other sophisticated technologies, we know multilingualism is incredibly valuable for all learning and for cognitive skills.

“It develops compassion in young people, creates awareness of other cultures and languages and encourages social harmony that arises out of this awareness.

“No studies have shown any detrimental effects of learning additional languages. What studies do show is that bilingual children do better in NAPLAN and similar tests internationally. English speakers learning another language also tend to do better in English tests,” Professor Morgan says.

Where Australian schools have failed in the past, Professor Morgan says, is that language learning has tended to happen only in dedicated language classes, with very minimal time allowed for learning, which often promotes only shallow learning.   

“The most effective way to learn is through full cultural and linguistic immersion programs, which can be through attending a linguistically diverse school which offers bilingual immersion programs, or through study placements with concentrated time immersed in the new language and culture, or through curricula that incorporate linguistically diverse subject matter – learning other subjects, like maths and history – in the target language.”

For those who missed out at school, Professor Morgan says it really is never too late to learn.

“Young children do not actually have any greater capacity to learn a language than adults. One difference, however, is that they don’t question their learning and don’t have the same fear that they won’t be able to learn. Motivated adults are also very effective learners, and there is increasing evidence for the benefits of staving off dementia if another language has been learned – or is being learned.”

“My first degree was through the drama college, NIDA. I worked in the theatre and was asked to direct a play by an Indonesian playwright. I didn’t know about Indonesian theatre so I took some private language and culture lessons, completing a year’s course in three months. Working in Indonesia with the theatre company, I had to function in Indonesian, and I became really connected to the culture as well as the language, which has remained a lifelong interest.”

As a result, Professor Morgan knows that language and culture learning is much more than an academic endeavour.

“The real benefit in intercultural language learning is that it changes you as a person. You’re more aware of difference, variability and complexity in the world around you,” she says, “you are more  inclined to consider different perspectives and to be creative about problem solving”.

Since then, Professor Morgan has been convinced Australia needs to prioritise language learning to better connect with peoples, their languages and cultures, including the rich cultures in our own backyard.

“There are also concerted efforts to reinvigorate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages learning through curriculum development and increasing the number of programs in schools, in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“The greatest benefit to Australians would be a much stronger awareness of their own national identity.

“Events like the recent NAIDOC Week and the Year of the Indigenous Language initiative this year are fantastic for promoting growth in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives in schools.

“As part of NAIDOC Week 2019, it was wonderful to be lead juror of the Patji-Dawes award for teaching languages other than English and to be able to present the award to two teachers working tirelessly to revive Aboriginal languages in schools and communities.”

Professor Morgan hopes this is just the beginning of the new ‘normal’.

“The end goal is that we will no longer be discussing the need for learning languages; it will just have become an ordinary part of everyone’s life and schooling as it is in other parts of the world.

“I would like every Australian student to study English, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language and one or more others, such as a community language or what we call a world language. It would increase the capacity of every individual to be able to engage in global contexts as a proud Australian.”

Professor Anne-Marie Morgan is Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning in UNE’s Faculty of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education (HASSE), sits on the Languages Education Consultation Committee for the NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA), is an executive committee member of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association and member of the Advisory Board for the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

More about the Patji-Dawes Award.