Languages in Crisis
Language skills are critically important to maximising Australia’s capacity to participate most effectively in a globalised world. This is true for individuals, and for the nation.
A major responsibility for enhancing the nation’s languages ability rests with the university sector. Not only do universities train the teachers, but it is increasingly through the universities that students gain (or not) the linguistic and cultural knowledge and understanding that they, and the nation, need in order to participate and contribute most fully as global citizens.
Over the past three decades, the teaching and learning of languages other than English (LOTE) in Australian universities have been the subject of growing alarm, with research conducted by the Australian Academy of the Humanities and others highlighting the dire need for action. In 2007, the Group of Eight issued an important report summing up the state of languages education in Australia. Entitled ‘Languages in Crisis’, the report highlighted how critical the situation had already become: in 1997 there were 66 languages offered at Australian universities, but just ten years on, only 29 remained. Both Asian and non-Asian languages are affected by this ‘crisis’; of these surviving languages nine are offered at only one university, and only seven are well-represented.
In addition to this massive decrease in the number of languages taught, the tertiary languages sector faces the following challenges:
- uneven student enrolments across languages and universities;
- low retention and high attrition rates;
- inconsistent student pathways and expected outcomes;
- erosion of senior leadership positions in many universities and increased casualisation and juniorisation of staff; and
- negative public attitudes to the critical importance of language learning.
The Need for a National Network
The need for a national network was identified by two ARC-funded studies of beginners’ languages in Australian universities (Nettelbeck et al. 2007, 2009), and a subsequent national languages colloquium staged in February 2009 (‘Beyond the Crisis’), which were initiatives led and supported by the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Funded by the Office for Learning and Teaching (2011-2012), a project began to create such a network, and hence LCNAU was established. Members of the Project Team brought a wealth of experience and expertise to the project, spanning different languages and universities across the country. The final report to the OLT may be downloaded here.
With the OLT project successfully concluded, LCNAU became incorporated as an association in June 2013, in order to continue to be able to offer vital support to the tertiary languages sector. Information on membership is available here.
LCNAU provides a vital link across the languages sector, by enabling increased systematic and regular collaboration and exchange. Leadership and guidance are urgently needed at various levels, from tutor to professor. LCNAU also strives to meet the need for leadership around models of delivery, models of assessment and curriculum development; this is underpinned by LCNAU’s goal of providing the most effective and rewarding learning experience for students.
LCNAU also functions as a lobby group for language education, something which has been sorely lacking. It contributes to challenging and changing public attitudes, which constitute an ongoing obstacle to achieving language education policy goals. LCNAU also interacts productively with other education sectors (primary and secondary), with business, and with other stakeholders.
The Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities therefore aims to provide the best possible languages education for Australian students by:
- supporting and extending sector cooperation, between Arts and Education faculties, and between universities;
- sharing present and future good practice across Australian universities;
- offering support on models of delivery to institutions struggling to keep languages afloat;
- improving the professional development of early-career and mid-career academics;
- encouraging and enabling university research on and through languages other than English; and
- providing a national approach and coordinated voice for the advocacy and promotion of language and culture education within and beyond universities, that is clearly embedded in the tertiary sector and durable over time.