Why Students Should Learn Languages

‘The Limits of My Language Mean the Limits of My World.’

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Bill Gates, tech visionary and business trailblazer, probably doesn’t have many regrets. He led Microsoft to phenomenal success, featured on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List for 12 consecutive years and the ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’ has now donated substantial sums to HIV/AIDS programs, agriculture research  and disaster relief, along with contributing crucial guidance and funding to programs in global health and education. Considering the breadth of the work to which he has devoted time, Gates’ biggest regret may surprise you. “I feel pretty stupid that I don’t know any foreign languages,” he remarked during a Reddit.com ‘AMA’ (Ask Me Anything) in January this year.

He wrote: “I took Latin and Greek in High School and got A’s and I guess it helps my vocabulary but I wish I knew French or Arabic or Chinese. I keep hoping to get time to study one of these…  Mark Zuckerberg amazingly learned Mandarin and did a Q&A with Chinese students – incredible.”(i) Clearly, if Bill Gates says he wishes he knew another language and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, can engage in a question-and-answer session with students at a Beijing university in their first language, we should all be learning an additional language for increased business and street cred. But why else would we learn a second, or even a third language?

After it was found that the number of Year 12 students studying a second language had decreased from 40% in the 1960s to only 12% in recent years,(ii) the Australian Government began a wider push to encourage more students to experience the benefits of studying a language other than English. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) recognises the interrelationship of language, culture and learning as providing the foundation for its updated curriculum; The Australian Curriculum: Languages includes language–specific curricula for world languages and a Framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages.

The continued development and support of Language studies within schools in Australia comes not just to ‘boost numbers’ in line with international rates of Languages education, but as a result of a developing awareness that Languages learning provides students with the opportunity to participate in the linguistic and cultural diversity of the world and its people and to reflect on their own place in the global community.(iii)  For Australian students, this understanding also means a clearer commitment to and positioning of Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander languages within the Languages curriculum documentation and access to the study of Auslan, the contemporary visual-spatial language of Australia’s Deaf community.

Wade Davis, anthropologist, biologist, botanist and National Geographic Explorer-in Residence, laments that half of the world’s 7000 languages are no longer passed on to children, effectively terminating a significant bond to culture,  history and ancestral wisdom.

“A language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.” (iv)

In Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, author Mark Abley explores the experiences of individuals and groups from parts of the world where minority languages are still spoken. He highlights the intimate relationship between Indigenous languages and land in Australia and emphasises that, rather than simply being in a natural state of flux, these languages are rapidly vanishing – blurring and erasing identity and ways of knowing.

In 2009, while teaching on Phillip Island, I travelled with an Outdoor Education class to Wadeye, a remote community situated on the western edge of the Daly River Reserve in the Northern Territory. A day trip out from Wadeye took our group to Kuy, a homeland made up of an open classroom and a small number of houses. Here, we met Patrick Palibu Nudjulu, a Magati Ke elder, custodian of the Rak Naniny clan and, at that time, one of two remaining speakers of the Magati Ke language. Speaking with Mr. Nudjulu encouraged profound realisations for the Year 11 students in my group. They developed a deep understanding that words are powerful links to spirit, history and culture. Language is storytelling; it is a way of being and of orienting ourselves to the earth. Language is what makes us human. Mr Nudjulu voiced the words for fire, boy and crocodile in a language near obsolete. One of the Victorian students noted that it was ‘like he was speaking from another time.’

Abley writes lyrically about his own time in Kuy with Mr. Nudjulu: “A slight film over his eyes betrays the arrival of cataracts. But he can still see down to the beach; he can dream; he can remember.

“I remember all,” he says in English, his fourth or fifth language. “I was born in my own bush here. Therefore I can’t forget.”… “I dream in Magati Ke. See all the past.”(v)

Lecturer Maree Klesch worked closely with Mr Nudjulu through her job at the Endangered Languages Centre at Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education. “You only have to look at those languages that are already extinct, and those languages that people are trying to retrieve to find out that without the language you just don’t have the cultural knowledge. You don’t have the scientific knowledge of medicine, the weather, how to manage the environment, all of that is lost in translation.”(vi)

The rationale for the new Languages curriculum recognises that “Learning Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages meets the needs and rights of young people to learn their own languages and recognises their significance in the language ecology of Australia.”(vii) For other students, learning Indigenous languages contributes to ‘meaning making’, cultural understanding and the ongoing process of reconciliation. As Tim Doner asserts in his TEDxTeen presentation, “You can translate words easily, but you can’t quite translate meaning.”

A Senior in New York, Doner believes that learning a language shouldn’t feel like a ‘task, but rather, that language learning should be fun and is about “learning to communicate with people [and] learning about foreign cultures. Knowing a foreign language is a lot more than knowing a couple of words out of a dictionary.” Learning languages shifts horizons for students and encourages connections to self and others, developing broader local and international opportunities.

The Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations (AFMLTA) 20th National Languages Conference begins this week in Melbourne with the theme Pedagogies for a plurilingual Australia, both a statement about Australia’s multilingual reality today and an aspiration for the future. As a bilingual or plurilingual competence is the norm in most parts of the world, AFMLTA supports that Languages learning should be mandated throughout the compulsory years of schooling. Learning a language gives students essential communication skills in the target language and their first language, a deeper understanding of the role of language and culture in communication practices and the capacity to contribute to the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity.

Teachers are aware that language immersion is a fundamental component of making cultural connections and practising ‘real life’ speaking and listening skills. Living languages ensures that students return to school having developed increased grammatical accuracy, lexical specificity and native pronunciation.  Latitude Group Travel designs personalised, curriculum-linked tours around the world for students studying Languages. Unique language lessons and in-country excursions are paired to ensure that students develop meaningful proficiencies in their studies. Latitude Group Travel will be discussing Languages Tours with educators at the AFMLTA 20th National Languages Conference; we welcome your questions and ideas about Languages Tours to develop an innovative and unique immersion experience for your students.

Orwell’s 1984 portrays a world devoid of the complexity and beauty of language. In his dystopia, language is used as a political weapon – its narrowness used to disempower individuals. Any opportunity to develop our vocabulary, to use words differently, to learn new languages and switch between them according to the circumstances we find ourselves in, should be celebrated. Not only because Bill Gates said so, but because our interaction with the world has no bounds when we aren’t limited by language.


Hayley Bunting


Account Manager

Latitude Group Travel Pty Ltd


i http://tinyurl.com/osm48gr, 6 July 2015

ii http://tinyurl.com/q2nnmt9, 6 July, 2015

iii http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/languages/rationale, 6 July, 2015

iv http://tinyurl.com/pgpq8o5, 6 July, 2015

v Mark Abley, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003, pg. 2

vi http://tinyurl.com/q5tvs28, 6 July, 2015

vii http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/languages/rationale, 7 July, 2015

Menu