Friday, February 04, 2011

National Curriculum

The first glimpse of the federal government's national languages curriculum came out this week. Here's a little of what the paper had to say:

The curriculum will cover 11 foreign languages, with Italian and Chinese the first to be developed.

Latin and other classical languages have been left out, raising concern. Language teachers say this is a major omission because a knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek underpins understanding of literature, art and the English language. The sign language Auslan has also been left out, also raising concern.

Italian and Chinese have been given first priority because the national curriculum authority says they ‘‘represent languages that cater for the greatest range of learners’’.

‘‘Chinese is a national priority, and Italian is learnt by the largest number of students in the primary years and the second-largest number of student enrolments over all.’’

Indonesian, Japanese and Korean are also deemed national priorities as part of the second stage of the language curriculum development.

Traditional European languages, including French and German and Spanish, will also be included because they are among the most commonly taught languages in Australian schools.

Any language not included in the national curriculum will continue to be taught under existing state arrangements, according to the draft paper by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.

I'm not particularly surprised that Latin was ommitted. NSW is (as far is I know) the only state where Latin is 'widely' taught, and so on a national level I can understand why it wouldn't figure highly. The curriculum also seems to me to be driven by utility - what languages are going to most useful - and it's hard (though not impossible) to mount an argument that Latin is more 'useful' than (say) Mandarin with eight hundred million speakers or Spanish with three hundred million. The first article's claim that "a knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek underpins understanding of literature, art and the English language" is true, but to a lot of people these days (including I suspect the people who wrote the syllabus) that's irrelevent if it can't help you close a business deal.

In my mind learning any language has benefits beyond simply their utility as a communication system. Learning a language helps you to see the world from a different perspective, teaches you transferable skills of analysis and discipline. Learning a language is also an end in and of itself - an activity that is intellectually stimulating and even pleasurable for its own sake, regardless of how it is 'used'. Perhaps that's an outdated, esoteric and even elitist view, but I genuinely think that being able to study something useless but enjoyable is a really great opportunity. It's an approach to langage learning that seems to be sadly absent from the new curriculum.

Just as an interesting footnote, in last year's HSC there were 162 candidates sitting for the Chinese Beginners and Continuers exams combined and 180 sitting for the Latin Continuers exam. 37 did Chinese Extension and 97 did Latin Extension. (These figures don't include the backgound speakers, which are of course much higher).


Mike Salter said...

I'm not too bothered that Latin will be left off. In my experience, the more centralised a curriculum is, the worse it is likely to be...although if it remains as it is in NSW I'd at least like them to get rid of those idiotic commentary questions for the unseens in the HSC.

Re the background speakers issue, by the way, there's still a bizarre discrimination at work in the NSW curriculum, where background speakers of Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese are unable to do the relevant Continuers courses, while background speakers of European extraction can. I've never understood it.

Jonathan said...

While no doubt emphasis on the utility of languages is all around us, I think the decision here was a little bit removed from "what languages are going to be more useful". Instead, they needed to decide what languages it is most helpful to prioritise for nationalisation of the curriculum (under the assumption that nationalisation is a good thing anyway).

Their rationale for language learning does seem to cover most of the benefits you mention, also, although the idea of intellectual stimulation as pleasurable for its own sake seems to have gone missing wherever you look.

Mike Salter said...

...the idea of intellectual stimulation as pleasurable for its own sake seems to have gone missing wherever you look...

You'd better not mention that radical idea to anyone at the Board of Studies (let alone the DET). Haven't you heard it's so last millennium? ;-)

Mike Salter said...

By the way JM, a recent article relevant to the topic:

jm said...

i was with that article the whole way until i got to this paragraph:

But just how useful is Mandarin? All very well if you go to China, but Latin has the advantage of being at the root of a whole host of European languages. “If I’m on an EasyJet flight with a group of European nationals, none of whom speak English, I find we can communicate if we speak to each other in Latin,” says Grace Moody-Stuart, a Classics teacher in West London. “Forget about Esperanto. Latin is the real universal language of Europeans.”

in my opinion that's just ridiculous. if you want to learn a spoken language, great - that's got lots of advantages. If you want to learn Latin, that's great too - it's got lots of advantages as well. but don't try to pretend Latin is useful for communicating in a foreign language.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps not a foreign language, however it does find its uses when speaking in medicine and medical science terminology, particular emphasis being placed on the human body and the weird and wacky things people have named various parts.

It's also found uses (I've heard) in Law and legal studies, because of the convention names.

Removal of Latin from the national syllabus is only going to hurt students who aim to go onto tertiary education. You could pick former classics students in my lectures based on them being the only ones who weren't whinging about all the Latin terms.

(To be fair, we were staring vacantly attempting to remember the word origins, but the point still stands.)

Furthermore, I remember while studying languages, they aided in my understanding of grammar and English. My syntax and grammar improved from years of analysing the intricacies of Latin, moreso than any other language.

Finally, while it still earns occasional ridicule from my peers, I wouldn't have traded the time I spent studying Latin for anything. It was fun, pure and simple. Getting to know and understand a "dead language" (My old teacher would cry hearing me say that...) was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my school day, and I know I wasn't the only one. My class, as small as it was, enjoyed the experiences learning Latin afforded us, and those I've met since school who also studied it (with the minor exception of those who opened with "Latin continuers? God, I hated Livy") also found that enjoyment and that value in study.

However, if Latin has taught me one thing, it's that it will find a way. Thousands of years have shown that.