Pupils find new way with words

Crossing borders ... students from Pymble Ladies College use video conferencing to communicate with students in Korea.
Crossing borders ... students from Pymble Ladies College use video conferencing to communicate with students in Korea.

The perennial challenges of language teachers - to unlock strange words on a page from textbooks and overcome the barriers of distance - are shrinking as the world speeds up.

Now, instead of relying on books and tapes, many students beginning the journey into another language are able to speak face-to-face with children their own age in another country, thanks to high-speed internet connections and video-conferencing facilities.

Such opportunities, once the preserve of only the most privileged or dedicated students, are spreading through the school system and finally offering a realistic way to bring the world into the classroom.

Successive federal governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying and failing to encourage students to tackle Asian languages during the past 20 years. Perhaps technology could be the impetus to reverse the decade-long decline in Asian-language learning.

At Macarthur Anglican School, in Cobbitty, south-west of Sydney, the year 9 Indonesian class started twice-weekly Skype sessions with a madrasah in South Jakarta last year.

Students originally spoke to each other over laptops in groups of three but now converse one-on-one in front of the entire class.

The conversations are lively affairs, interrupted by applause and driven by the students' curiosity about each other's daily life, culture and views on such things as One Direction.

''As soon as you have real people involved, it brings a soul to the curriculum,'' says an Indonesian language teacher at the school, Melissa Gould-Drakeley. ''That has been the biggest change: the change of motivation from students wanting to get [the language] right.''

''Role plays are notorious because they have no social consequences,'' says a professor of Indonesian at the Australian National University, Dr Timothy Hassall, who is also an expert on second-language learning.

Typically, conversations in early and intermediate language classes are predictable. Students prepare set speeches or act out role plays with few variables. ''Hey, Pak, is this hotel clean and cheap? No, Ibu, that hotel is expensive and dirty.''

''Here, they're actually trying to initiate and maintain a relationship,'' Hassall says. ''It's stressful and a lot more of a thrill.''

Gould-Drakeley says the vision her students gain of Indonesian culture is more complex and up-to-date than that presented in textbooks.

''There's a stereotype that Indonesia is very conservative; they're surprised that anything's modern: 'You do go to the movies', 'You do have an iPhone','' she says. ''They're having a lot of their stereotypes challenged and perspectives broadened.''

Since they started using Skype as a class, several of the students have formed their own online relationships, improving their vocabulary and application.

''The visual element of Skype is important, too,'' Hassall says. ''It has huge advantages over a phone connection in a second language, which has a lot of difficulty unless you're fluent.''

Hassall says the exposure to idiom will broaden students' vocabularies. Using their vocabularies for genuine communication and to learn more about foreign cultures is also likely to cement their interest.

Keeping students interested will be key if the government is to meet its goal of doubling the rate at which languages are studied.

Asian languages in Australian schools reached a peak in 2000, thanks to the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy.

The $100 million-a-year program (in today's money) took the number of students studying Indonesian, Korean, Chinese and Japanese to more than 750,000. Since that scheme was scrapped in 2002, the latest figures show that number has dropped by more than 100,000. Even this decline is masked by a rise in the number of students learning Chinese - an increase due largely to rising numbers of native or heritage student speakers.

The decline is explained by several factors, including the supply of teachers and the way languages are assessed in the HSC. But keeping students interested is fundamental.

Indonesian, the third most popular language in Australian schools, is a case in point. Since 2005, 10,000 fewer school students study Indonesian each year. Of the 120,000 primary school students who start learning Indonesian, only about 1 per cent continue through to their final year.

The figures for other languages are similar if native speakers are excluded. ''One thing we have long known about learning a foreign language is that personal experience and personal relationships with native speakers are incredibly important motivators,'' says a director at the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), Kurt Mullane.

The AEF is promoting the use of video conferencing in schools through its BRIDGE (Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement) program. So far it has linked more than 120 schools with counterparts in Indonesia, Korea, Japan and China.

The federal government last month gave the AEF $1 million to further train teachers in using the technology.

''It has huge potential,'' Mullane says, noting that his organisation hopes to give a wide pool of students a connection to foreign culture, something previously provided only to those who can afford to go on exchanges.

Video conferencing is being used outside language classes, too.

At Pymble Ladies College, the video-conferencing centre resembles the United Nations General Assembly. Students sit in groups of three around circular tables and in front of individual microphones and laptops.

The geography class links up with a sister school in Korea, and the students compare each other's economies.

In English, they analyse Cinderella and its Korean equivalent, and compare notes on the changing status of women.

The school's language classes also make the most of the video-conferencing centre. Students of French and German get to know their host families before they go on exchange, while the Latin class performs in a global recitation competition, linked up with students from 18 countries, to be judged by teachers in Europe and North Africa.

A professor of linguistics at the University of South Australia, Angela Scarino, says that while video conferencing enlivens language classes, the texture it adds to students' perspectives of foreign cultures could be the secret to boosting their enrolment in language subjects.

''There's a real live experiential dimension, it's up to date, it's actual, it's not a picture of these cultures of thousands of years ago,'' Scarino says. ''But it won't be the technology by itself.

''The technology needs to become a bridge. And the teachers need to facilitate that bridging.''

Teachers have to help their students mediate cultures, she says, in an experience that raises the same provocative questions as living in a foreign culture.

''Teachers should get students to recognise that there are other ways of seeing the world and being in the world, places where if you use your own ways you might cause offence.''

Get students interested in deeper questions about how their culture differs and intersects with others, and enthusiasm for language will flow naturally.

''That's an enormously important piece of learning now that there's so much movement in the world,'' Scarino says. But, as Gould-Drakeley says, many of her students are surprised by how much of their conversations don't need translation.

''One of my girls said she was going to go to a Justin Bieber concert and the girls over there screamed with delight.''

This story Pupils find new way with words first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.