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Polyglots, coming to a preschool near you

Your young charges may be greeting you with a “buongiorno” as well as a “ni hao”, come 2017.

The government has announced a rollout of its Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) program to all childcare centres and preschools, in addition to the inclusion of two additional languages, Italian and Spanish, following successful trials undertaken by 10,000 children.

Delivered via an app called Polyglot, it aims to instil in kids a love of other tongues, so that, with any luck, they continue language studies as they progress through school.

According to the Asia Education Foundation’s Senior Secondary Languages report, in 1960, 40 per cent of Year 12 students studied a foreign language. Today, this rate is just 12 per cent.

The government’s hope for multilingual students isn’t merely beneficent. The education minster, Simon Birmingham, explained a practical reason for mastering another lingua franca:

“We live in a globalised world and initiatives like the languages app are vital to supporting our children in taking full advantage of the new opportunities our economic transition presents. It is particularly encouraging to see in what many describe as the ‘Asian Century’ that almost 2 in 3 students are studying the vital languages Chinese and Japanese.”

Hindi and modern Greek will be added in 2018, reflecting both trade and migration patterns.

The current ELLA suite, from which kids can pick Chinese, Japanese, French, Indonesian, or Arabic, has yielded promising results. A Deloitte analysis revealed 78 per cent of parents witnessed their kids using the language outside of preschool, and 49 per cent noticed their child had an increased interest in the culture of their language of choice.

Apart from the efficacy of a child greeting their Indonesian teacher with ‘halo’ instead of ‘hello’, Dr Mark Antoniou, research fellow at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development at Western Sydney University, thinks there’s a more deep-seated rationale behind the government’s early language push.

“Earlier is better … but more than that, I think they’re trying to change attitudes so that children grow up [feeling] that learning an additional language is something valuable,” he conjectured.

Antoniou praised the ELLA program for going beyond app-tapping.

“The nice thing … about how ELLA will be implemented is that it provides the preschool children with a cohort experience, where the child can work on the app, and then come together with other children in a group and do some sort of language games and exercises, like counting or reading a story.”

The best foreign language outcomes typically come from interaction with native speakers. Antoniou reckons making these happen regularly for young children in Australia isn’t a ‘pie in the sky’ fantasy. With Australia’s renowned cultural diversity, we’re perfectly placed for nursery-bound Greek, Arabic or Mandarin conversations.

He cautioned that for ELLA to be successful, even just as a springboard for children’s interest in other lingo, adequate resources, including a stable internet connection, are a must.

And for it to succeed in making kids proficient in another language, it must reverberate beyond preschool. “Schools will need resources [and] trained staff with qualifications and, ideally, expertise in those languages,” he explained.

“It’s not just a matter of unveiling a few apps and the problem goes away, but I think that’s a very encouraging first step,” he said.

Applications for the 2017 ELLA program are now open.

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