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Why learn a language in Australia today?

Over the years Australia has localised a version of English that’s far different today to what was inherited from colonial times. With the unique colloquialisms of ‘Strine’ slang, there’s nowhere else you’ll hear people say ‘fair suck of the sauce bottle’ or ‘fair dinkum mate’!

According to the 2016 census, 72.7% of Australians speak English and 21% speak a language other than English at home, or have learned a second language for work. The most common languages spoken include Mandarin (2.5%), Arabic (1.4%), Cantonese (1.2%), Vietnamese (1.2%) and Italian (1.2%). Around 0.25% of Australians also speak Indigenous languages.

There are many benefits from learning another language and being multilingual. According to Dr Michiko Weinmann and Dr Ruth Arber, Co-Directors of Deakin’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages, learning a new language should be top of your to-do list. ‘A multitude of research shows that learning a new language offers many rewards,’ Dr Arber and Dr Weinmann say.

Is learning another language going to be good for you personally and professionally? Dr Weinmann and Dr Arber give you an insight into the benefits of being multilingual and bust some language myths.

What’s the point in learning a second language? 

Perhaps you’ve thought learning a language is too hard, or that there’s no point. Because the whole world speaks English, why should you need to learn another? Dr Weinmann and Dr Arber are particularly passionate about busting these myths:

‘The reality is that the majority of people worldwide speak and study several languages and it’s just a part of life. The “it’s too hard” debate is based on an assumption that languages are not necessary. We don’t hear this debate around mathematics, science or PE, where students are told it’s good to push yourself intellectually and physically.’

When it comes to busting the myth that languages are useless, the data suggests otherwise – there are more first language speakers of Chinese and Spanish than of English. Dr Arber and Dr Weinmann also point out that learning a ‘second’ language suggests a language hierarchy: ‘It is simply not factual to assume that there is one, universal ‘first’ language, particularly in a multilingual society like Australia.’

Have we given up studying languages?

Language departments have been struggling for a long time in Australia due to poor funding and policy. ‘While the EU language education policy recommends “mother tongue plus two”, Australia currently does not have any national languages policy,’ Weinmann and Arber say. ‘Its absence testifies silently to an English-speaking monolingual mindset that continues to undermine support for learning another language.’

The good news is that, in the face of this struggle, learning another language has become incredibly popular at universities. ‘Deakin is committed to languages education in a globalised world and the university offers strategic languages for the Australia-Pacific region, including Mandarin, Arabic, Indonesian and Spanish,’ Weinmann and Arber explain. ‘Deakin is unique in that it also offers community-based education programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians through the Institute of Koorie Education.’

'A multitude of research shows that learning a new language offers many rewards.'

Dr Michiko Weinmann and Dr Ruth Arber,
Deakin University

Should we aim to be multilingual? 

‘The encouraging thing is, we are all much more multilingual than we think,’ Weinmann says.

‘We are already globally connected in so many ways, linguistically, culturally and spatially through popular culture – think K-Pop, international films, manga comics, Latin dancing, travel, social media, and cuisine – to assume that someone only speaks one language or only has one culture is really misleading and not representative of the globalised world we live in.’

Weinmann adds: ‘We should feel encouraged and well-equipped to take the next step in our learning languages journey…’

What are the benefits of learning a new language? 

When your brain has to switch between speech, writing and structure, you become a better multi-tasker and improve your memory and attention span. You also become a better traveller – locals love it when you make the effort to have a conversation in their language. ‘My son has learnt how to order a beer in 44 different languages,’ Dr Arber laughs.

Languages help you advance your career by making you stand out and giving you global mobility – opportunities open up for employment and an international career around the world. ‘Employers today are looking for well-rounded employees who are global citizens and have an understanding of other cultures. Being able to speak another language certainly ticks those boxes,’ Dr Weinmann adds.

Learning a second language helps you to make friends and contacts all over the world.  ‘Everyone who speaks another language will tell you that speaking someone else’s language adds a deeper sense of connection and is a benefit that has no price tag,’ Weinmann says.

Languages are powerful and in demand, and can take you around the world volunteering and travelling. And let’s not forget the main benefit – learning a language is a lot of fun.

When we learn languages it’s more than just words, we learn about people, cultures and history – and see the world through other people’s eyes. Dr Weinmann and Dr Arber both agree: ‘it’s never too late to start learning a language. And once you’ve mastered another language, the skills you’ve learned along the way will make it that much easier to learn more’.

Expand your horizons and study a diploma in Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian or Spanish.

Get specialised skills and learn how to teach other languages.

Find out more about flexible study at the National Indigenous Knowledges Education Research Innovation Institute. 

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Dr Michiko Weinmann
Dr Michiko Weinmann

Co-Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages, Deakin University

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Dr Ruth Arber
Dr Ruth Arber

Co-Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages, Deakin University

Read profile 

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