Supporting language use and learning

In the midst of Endangered Languages Week there is the good and the bad. The good was the delight of reading Rob Munro’s post on what his company Idibon intends to do for NLP for endangered languages. The company is advised by Chris Manning, and I learned today that his wonderful Warlpiri dictionary presentation tool Kirrkirr was being used by a new generation of Warlpiri. Good things echo – and NLP can build a place for small languages in a digital world.

At the same time in Australia we are reinforcing English monolingualism by reducing the opportunities to learn languages at university. The fees and Government support don’t pay the full costs. So yesterday yet another Australian university announced it is giving up teaching languages – Spanish, Chinese and Japanese at the University of Canberra. This follows on Curtin University announcing it was thinking of similar cuts.

The argument is that students can always study languages on the web/in another university. But the reality is that language learning is hard work, speaking another language requires intensive oral practice, students are doing part-time work, and the time and effort required to go to another university make languages just all too hard (and cross-institutional enrolment is a world of pain). SO, do it on the web? Sure – but it COSTS real money to put courses online and make them interactive enough and attractive enough to overcome the inherent problems of learning a spoken language on-line. And money to do that is exactly what universities don’t have.

The reality is that, as more universities close down languages, fewer students will learn languages, and there will be a shrinking pool of Australians who understand the societies where those languages are spoken.

At ANU we are experimenting with teaching Portuguese – 240+ million speakers, but barely taught in Australia. We can only do this thanks to generous support from the Embassy of Brazil and a Portuguese language endowment we have set up. That’s scary.

But then so is a fund-starved university education system where law has become more attractive to students than pure maths, agriculture and physics. No wonder we are falling behind in educating primary and secondary school students – if we don’t teach science and languages at universities, where will the next generations of science and language teachers come from?

One Comment

  1. Dr McCosker says:

    I agree. It dawned on me some time ago that it is possible for someone born to an English-speaking family in Australia could proceed through our entire education system, all the way through to the acquisition of a PhD in any number of subjects, without ever learning another language. (Some high schools ask all entering students to do a ‘taster’ in another language, but after that, they are generally able to ‘opt out’ and choose other subjects).

    I am totally in favour of support for language teaching at every level from preschool through to university – both Australian Aboriginal languages (whether revival work or maintenance) and non-indigenous languages other than English.

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