Learning a foreign language

November 28, 2007 at 3:00 am 5 comments

Baby PeemWhen I was growing up in the 1940s or was that the 1930s? – okay not THAT long ago – I had a grand vision of learning several languages. In high school, the norm was to take on a second language (I can’t recall if it was compulsory or not). Anyway, all my friends decided to study German, French or Latin – I of course always like to be different!

The high school I went to introduced an Asian language – Indonesian. I can’t remember if Japanese was also offered. My best friend, Shayne, trotted off to study German. I joined her for one week but didn’t like the guttural sound of the language (with apologies to any Germans reading this post). I’ve come to appreciate the language now being a die-hard fan of Inspector Rex. Yep, afraid so. I had the misfortune to contract bacterial pneumonia in 2004 whilst on a visit to Portugal and while I was battling the dreaded bacteria, I watched hours and hours of television. Can’t speak Portuguese, so television shows didn’t make much sense to me. Flicking the channels, I stumbled onto Inspector Rex and actually picked up some German. I still watch Inspector (Komissar) Rex, largely for any glimpse of the dude who played Alexander Brandtner. His name is Gedeon Burkhard. Here’s a photo of him and I’m sure you’ll understand why I suddenly decided to take up German as a second language!

Okay, slightly distractive eye-candy, now where was I? Oh yes, back at high school. I ditched German and went over to the Indonesian class. I think it was stuffed full of 6 students, not a popular language to learn way back in the Neolithic period. From memory, 4 of the 6 were boys largely interested I suggest in the young blonde teacher rather than learning the ins and outs of the Indonesian language. I ended up speaking the language reasonably okay, it’s not that difficult to learn. I then went to University to study history and as a side dish studied Russian (a whole heap harder!).

Then I become lost in translation ie I went off to work in organisations and only recently have started thinking about taking up another language. I’m way behind on my grand plan of speaking five languages other than English. My husband speaks four. I can mutter “totally awesomely good looking” in German whenever I watch Inspector Rex (referring to the dog of course!); I can speak superficial Indonesian these days along the lines of “how are you” and “what colour is that table?”; and my Russian, well let’s just say I hope I don’t become lost again in the streets of Moscow as I did in the early 1990s.

So….I was thinking of taking up Portuguese, my husband is after all Portuguese and speaks the language fluently. But then I heard the Labor Party leader, Kevin Rudd, impress everyone with his Mandarin speaking abilities during APEC back in September. Now, I have to admit I did this post about a week ago and set it to automatic as ThinkingShift is on a pre-Christmas break – so it could very well be that I should have said Prime Minister Rudd because maybe he won the November 24 Australian Federal Election. I like the sound of Mandarin, it’s very soft on the ear. But then a friend of mine is learning Italian. And a very close friend is Thai – I have adopted her family and she mine. And I very much like Thailand, so why not learn Thai?

So it seemed to me that clever people speaking second or third or fourth languages is an increasingly common thing. And I had visions of young Australians learning Mandarin given the increasing influence of China and the fact that there are 873 million Mandarin speakers, plus a further 178 million who speak it as their second language.

But it seems I might be wrong. Kids in high school are shunning learning another language according to an article in The Age. Apparently, only 13% of Year 12 students studied a language this year, compared with 40% four decades ago. What the? Why aren’t school kids studying languages? Australia isn’t at the mercy of the tyranny of distance anymore and given the waking up of the Chinese tiger, I would have thought there would be a stampede to learn Mandarin. But it ranks fourth behind French, Japanese, Italian, Indonesian and German as languages students study. Now, I’m about to offend my French readers, but I don’t see why Australian school kids should be learning French over Indonesian or Mandarin. But maybe they’re trying to save the French language given that it’s in dramatic decline around the world due to the predominance of English as the language of commerce and the internet.

With China now being the major trading partner of Australia, I would have thought that the Federal Government would increase the number of high schools teaching Mandarin as they’ve done in South Africa.

Heck, I think just learning any other language is an intellectual pursuit in its own right, so why on earth are Australian kids lagging behind?

Mmmmmm….maybe I just convinced myself – Mandarin classes look like a goer.


Entry filed under: Languages, Schools and schoolchildren.

We’re watching you! Watch out for that mosquito

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Oohlala  |  November 29, 2007 at 4:32 am

    In the age of the new Australian leader, I think Australia will do business with China more and more. So, Mandarin should be a good choice.

  • 2. Brad  |  December 11, 2007 at 3:59 am


    I learned German at school too and tweak it while also watching Inspector Rex – the subtitles are also helpful these days!

    The great pity of our education system is that language studies are so poorly made available. My primary school daughter wants to learn Spanish, which is great, but the local schools don’t offer languages and I can’t find a local Spanish language class for kids.

    If we lived in Europe, however, things wouldn’t be so difficult….


  • 3. thinkingshift  |  December 11, 2007 at 8:38 am

    so true Brad. Friends of ours in Europe can speak Spanish, French, German and Italian. Let’s hope the new Rudd Government rattles our education system.

  • 4. Suzanne Brown  |  February 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm

    First, I just want you to know that your blog is excellent. I have learned alot and I enjoy reading your posts. Learning any language can enrich your life in so many ways despite their “popularity”. It is interesting to observe the shift in dominance with regards to languages. My husband is French (and , like your husband, speaks 4 languages) and I am a monolingual Canadian Anglophone (geez that sounds werid)and we live in Quebec. I had to learn French in order to communicate with my in-laws and the public in general. Also, if you want to secure a decent job, you have to be bilingual. I love French despite my quest to become fluent. I too would love to be bi or trilingual like the average European. Check out this blog if you maybe interested to learn French online http://www.learn-frenchfast.blogspot.com

  • 5. thinkingshift  |  February 18, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    thx Suzanne…glad you enjoy TS blog. I admire your ability to conquer French. I started learning the language because my step-children are French but gave up pretty quickly! I will check out the link you provided and I might just try again 🙂


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