Minding your language a virtual reality

THE state government will resort to using ''virtual classrooms'' - where multiple schools share the same teacher over the internet - as it may not have enough qualified staff to fulfil its promise to teach every child a second language.

Before the last state election, Ted Baillieu promised a languages revival in which every Victorian student up to year 10 would be required to take on a language by 2025, starting with prep in 2015. But with department figures showing almost 60 per cent of secondary school students do not study a language - and almost a third of primary schools don't offer them - the government concedes it will have to get creative to deliver its goal.

Education Minister Martin Dixon said he was confident the language policy would be achieved, especially since $6 million was being spent to recruit language teachers over the next three years. However, he admitted that ''in every case, it might not necessarily be one teacher for every classroom''.

Instead, more schools might have to use videoconferencing, where students from different classes tune in to a real-time lesson being conducted by a teacher at another school.

Some classes have already adopted this method - Dimboola Memorial Secondary College provides German to about eight primary schools; Mount Clear Secondary College provides Chinese to about seven primary schools - but the program will be vastly expanded over the next few years as the government moves to arrest the decline of languages in Victoria.

''We've got to set the scene in terms of convincing the community about the importance of learning another language. At the moment it's patchy - some schools understand it; others have a fair way to go,'' Mr Dixon said.

The minister's comments come as education union research suggests about 41 per cent of state schools are teaching languages without a properly qualified teacher.

It also comes only weeks after Mr Baillieu's trade mission to China, where he announced an even more aggressive push to make young people more proficient in Mandarin.

Under the latest plan, 1500 year 9 students will be sent to Jiangsu province over the next five years as part of an immersion program to improve their grasp of the language.

A new VCE Mandarin subject will also be created, aimed at students of non-Chinese backgrounds wishing to pursue a language in their senior years.

Education Department data shows that last year 5782 students were studying the language in year 7, but only 1299 had continued in year 12.

Language teacher Antoinette Masiero said the reason many high school students were not studying a second language was because too many primary schools, including her own (which she did not want named) had abandoned the subject.

''So the kids get to high school and it's torturous to learn. If we can get them in those early years - between the ages of four and eight - then their whole brains are going to be wired in a way that is automatic,'' she said.

VCE student Thomas Monaghan, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of person the government needs in order to fulfil its election promise. The year 12 student from St Patrick's College in Ballarat has studied Japanese since year 8 - and wants to be a language teacher after university.

Asked why many of his peers didn't take on a language subject, he replied: ''I feel as though it's really, really underpromoted … There's always certificates for PE, maths, or English - and you can get scholarships for those sorts of subjects, whereas there isn't a lot of that opportunity in languages to keep kids interested.''

Parents Victoria spokeswoman Gail McHardy said the most challenging part about the government's language policy was convincing people about the benefits of learning another language. Australian Education Union branch president Mary Bluett said it was a worthwhile goal, but ''there's no way they'll meet that objective''.

ftomazin@theage.com.au

The story Minding your language a virtual reality first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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