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The LCNAU National Language Campaign " Find Your Best Self In Another Language". Picture: Supplied.

Academics push to renew foreign language interest in domestic students

Academics and language advocates across Australia are calling for a national strategy to renew domestic students' interest in foreign languages studies after data showed a drop in enrollments.

Ten universities have backed up a new national campaign which invites students to add language courses to their degrees to reduce their study fees.

Australian Consortium For In Country Indonesian Studies director and campaign coordinator Liam Prince said language courses around the country have been on the “chopping block” for the past two years.

“It is important to try to support colleagues in language departments to withstand the pressure as enrolments decline and financial pressures from Covid are still strong,” Prince told Campus Review.

ANU, Monash University, Macquarie University, UNSW, UTS, Flinders University, the University of Newcastle, ACU, UQ and the University of Melbourne have contributed a total of $100,000 to boost students' interest in foreign languages. 

The LCNAU National Languages Campaign entices domestic students to take advantage of the job-ready graduates reforms which reduces student’s fee and HECS debt if they study a foreign language. 

“The previous government had made this change but hadn't publicised it to the key economic actors that they were trying to influence,” Prince said. 

The 2020 announcement has seen the cost of language studies being cut from $6808 to $3700 per year, while it doubled the price of most arts, humanities and social science subjects.

Prince believes students are unaware they could reduce the overall cost of their study up to $10000 and their HECS debt if they added a language to their degree.

While there are reservations on whether students choose their university courses based on their cost, Prince believes the current economic inflation is taking its toll on student’s finances.

“Up until 2021, we never lived in a world of $40,000 arts degrees - this is totally new terrain. 

“Students are now paying attention to the amount of HECS that they're racking up over the course of their degree and it has never been more affordable for Australians to pick up a language at university,” he said.

For the last couple of years, domestic student enrolment in language courses has declined from 33,000 students in 2013 to 25,000 in 2020. 

John Hajek professor of Italian Studies at The University of Melbourne and president of the Languages and Cultures Network of Australian Universities (LCNAU) said Australia has a "monolingual mindset" despite being a multicultural society. 

“In general, English-speaking countries don't understand the value of learning and speaking other languages nor the benefits that having additional knowledge of foreing languages and cultures brings,” Hajek told Campus Review.

“Australia needs to take advantage of the multilingual resources available in the country, and that includes sharing knowledge about languages and cultures with all university students.”

He believes language programs at universities train graduates with global skills to give them an opportunity to reach higher end jobs which will benefit the society more broadly. 

“The fewer opportunities students have to learn languages means that we're risking a de-skilling of our student and making them less prepared to the world around them,” he said.

Hajek said the national language campaign is here to create a “bump” in enrollment but also to spark interest in domestic students. 

“Students who learn another language have better cognitive benefits, better wellbeing, they become more compassionate, tolerant and have better job opportunities as they can also work overseas.” 

While enrollments in his Italian study class at the University of Melbourne have been quite constant, Hajek said the higher education sector hasn’t been doing enough to promote language learning on campus. 

“It needs to be front and centre,” he said.

The professor believes students have been facing difficulties picking up languages as some course structures, like engineering, prevent them from taking on subjects outside of study area.

“Students want to study languages but they can’t, universities should make it as easy as possible for their graduates to study a foreign language," he said.

He encourages universities around the country to restructure their courses to allow students to take courses outside of their degree to allow students continue to study languages across semesters. 

“When the University of Melbourne restructured their degrees, the numbers of enrollment in language courses increased significantly," he said.

Additionally, Hajek believes universities should also foster multilingualism and multiculturalism from within and get their administrations, staff as well as their students to understand the value of language and culture learning.

“Universities themselves are highly multilingual, staff speak a lot of different languages everyday for their research, but it is hidden from view and they sometimes aren’t aware of how multilingual their own staff are.” 

Hajek believes the higher education sector should also develop language policies that encourage staff and students to use a variety of languages through their studies and research output.

“They should encourage people to teach and do some of their publishing in other languages.

“Not everything has to be in English,” he said.

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