Notes from Symposium on Language Education in the Asia-Pacific Region

I attended a symposium last week at my university on language education in the Asia-Pacific region. It was very interesting and fascinating and left me wanting to learn every Asian language and visit every Asian country. I also attended the new postgraduate student induction and have been finishing up the final revisions on my research proposal. Next week I’m off to Canberra for a conference (and a little sightseeing!) so I probably won’t post again until I return.

Some notes I took at the symposium:

  • English is the official working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – all of which have English as an integral part of their primary curriculum. Quite a difference from the European Union with 27 member states and 23 official languages!
  • A common myth about second language learning is that a student’s native/home language will hinder acquisition of the second language and that starting to learn a language as early as possible is always better. In fact, using the child’s home language to teach core concepts such as math and science and introducing the second language (such as English) later yields better results. In North American contexts, students take about 5-7 years to learn English well enough in order to learn other subjects through English. In non-Anglophone contexts (such as Asia or Africa), it takes longer – usually 8 years. English Only movements such as those that restrict usage of Spanish in the US or Aboriginal languages in Australia are not supported by linguistic research. Using one’s native language helps in the acquisition of a second language, especially at a young age.
  • The closing of the second day of the symposium brought up questions that perhaps we don’t have the answers to (at least, not yet). For example, is motivation the real issue? Low levels of language study in Australia (and the US) have been a problem for a while, but is it really a lack of motivation by the students or is it more related to educational structures? The foreign language budget is often cut and classes cancelled to make room for more “important” subjects, while at the same time governments continue to stress how vital knowledge of languages is for students’ futures. It should also be noted that the motivation for teaching languages is very different (usually economic or political) from the motivation for learning languages (usually humanistic). Even if there is a lot of teaching of a language in schools (such as English in Asia), is there learning? Are schools the best places to be educated?

If you’re interested in the Asia-Pacific region, the Asia Education Foundation website provides information about Asia literacy in Australian schools.

In December, I’ll start posting about my actual PhD research and the wonderful world of vocabulary acquisition and lexical variation!

Dr. Wagner has a PhD in Linguistics and is dedicated to learning and teaching languages online and abroad. She has studied in Quebec and Australia, taught English in France, and is currently based in the US.