Australian Universities See Increase in Foreign Language Study

Article written by Bernard Lane for The Australian, August 1, 2012:

The most dramatic increase at the University of Melbourne has been in Spanish (up 539 per cent across three years) while Chinese was the star performer at the University of Western Australia this year for beginners (111 per cent up on last year).

UWA’s new undergraduate degrees began this year whereas Melbourne’s students have been required to take “breadth” subjects outside their home faculty since 2008.

Both institutions give bonus entry points to students with a Year 12 language.

“The Melbourne model seems to show that the non-take-up of languages in many institutions may not be a matter of student demand, but of structural impediments,” said Anya Woods, project manager with the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities.

Easily crowded out by timetabling and the rigid course structures of professional degrees, languages are promoted as breadth subjects in the liberal arts-style curriculums of Melbourne and UWA.

Last month ex-Treasury chief Ken Henry, in charge of the Asian century white paper, said Melbourne and UWA represented “pockets of (language) success” and cited the changes they had made to degree structures.

Dr Woods said the figures were encouraging but it was a little early to declare curriculum reform the solution.

“We need to know whether the increases in first-year enrolments are retained into the (higher) levels where linguistic and cultural proficiency bring significant value to individual students and the community,” she said.

UWA arts dean Krishna Sen said enrolments were well up in both beginners and advanced classes but she was planning a study of the high attrition rates suffered by Asian languages.

“While the Melbourne-UWA model solves the problem of getting students in, it does not address the issue of teaching difficult Asian languages within the current levels of base funding for languages,” she said.

Sam Rutter, an honours student at Melbourne, has an interest in literary translation and is tackling Spanish at a level that probably would not have been possible when he began in 2006.

Back then, Melbourne still relied on teachers from La Trobe.

Mr Rutter took off overseas in 2008, studying in Chile, and returned the following year to Melbourne — and to a Spanish program on the up and up.

“It’s definitely a lot more organised; more options, fantastic teachers,” he said.

In the beginners’ stream, Melbourne started the year with 360 students. Melbourne’s arts dean Mark Considine said the advent of breadth subjects was one reason for the rise of languages.

According to his latest figures, undergraduate numbers for Spanish in 2010 were up 539 per cent on 2007, while Chinese and Japanese enrolments rose by 84 per cent across the same period.

The number of students taking Chinese as a breadth subject — students from outside the arts faculty — rose by 147 per cent.

For Japanese, this increase was 174 per cent.

Across all languages, enrolments of students from arts have grown by 20 per cent compared with an increase of 162 per cent for students from other faculties.

In the beginners stream this year at UWA, the big increases included Chinese (374 students, up 111 per cent on last year), German (289, 95 per cent) and Japanese (478, 77 per cent).

Indonesian, in decline nationally during the past decade, enjoyed a 70 per cent increase to reach 82 students.

UWA had to cut off first-year enrolments in Japanese and Korean because demand was so great.

French remains most popular with 700 beginners this year, up 52 per cent on last year. Italian has 392 beginners compared with 223 last year.

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