Language teachers remain outraged over the federal government’s decision to terminate a program aimed at improving their classroom practice.

The Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowship (ELTF), which sent practising and pre-service educators to a country in which the language they taught was spoken, was cut in May’s budget.

The month-long program had been held annually since 2004, providing teachers with intensive language classes, cultural lessons and the opportunity to network with other teachers.

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Almost 2000 language teachers have been awarded one of the fellowships and, since 2007, teachers at more than 1200 schools have participated in the program.

President of the Modern Language Teachers’ Association of New South Wales (MLTANSW) Gillian Cordy told Crikey her organisation was not consulted before the fellowship was scrapped. Cordy wrote a letter of response on behalf of MLTANSW in which she says the association was “shocked and dismayed” by the decision.

“With language teaching in Australia, we are isolated and we don’t have a lot of chances to interact with people who speak the language,” said Cordy, a French language teacher selected to take part in the 2007 program.

Before joining the ELTF program, Cordy had only briefly visited France on holiday. She says the experience reinvigorated her teaching and made her a more confident languages teacher.

“The cultural elements [of language teaching] are very static if you just take them from a textbook,” Cordy said.

Shelby Stewart, a secondary school Indonesian teacher at Victoria’s Maryborough Education Centre, joined the program before it was axed and says it was a valuable experience.

“Being taught by native speakers bettered my language skills. There were a lot of cultural activities we did, like making Balinese offerings, that I’ve brought back to the classroom,” she told Crikey.

Stewart says “real-life” in-country experience is critical. She remembers one student in her tertiary course that was going to be an Indonesian teacher, but had never left his home state.

“How can you be a language teacher if you haven’t had an authentic experience of that language?” Stewart said.

She says the program’s cancellation is another setback for languages, which already face a lack of community support in places as ethnically homogeneous as Maryborough.

“They don’t see it as important. It’s always the first subject to be cut,” said Stewart, whose school has already cut Indonesian from a full-year to six-month program at year 7.

The federal government had committed itself to addressing the peripheral place language subjects occupy in school curricula. In 2012, the Abbott-led Liberal opposition expressed its desire for 40% of Australian year 12 students to study a language. At the time, just over 12% did so.

“If they’re really committed to increasing the number of students coming out of year 12 [with a language], then I think the capacity of those who are teaching it at primary and secondary schools should be a priority,” Cordy said.

The government has also accepted recommendations from a Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report that pushes for all primary school educators to graduate from university with a specialisation in science, maths or languages. The education department website says ELTF funding has been redirected to addressing the report’s recommendations but Cordy says she’s yet to see that happen.

But Stewart says the government’s support for language learning, as well as its insistence on a close relationship with Indonesia, makes the funding cut even more disappointing.

“The government says, ‘Indonesia’s our closest neighbour, and it’s important to have that connection’, but that’s not being backed up by policy. It’s a very inconsistent approach.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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