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HUNTER children as young as five are pursued by a growing tribe of language schools that teach youngsters how to converse in rare languages including Mauritanian, Tibetan, Sinhalese and Tamil.
Heidi Lindgren, education officer with the Hunter Parents and Teachers Association of Community Language Schools, said about 400 students from kindergarten to year12 were learning 16 languages at 18 locations across the region, either after school or on weekends.
‘‘In Newcastle, ethnic diversity has not tended to be widely promoted or publicised,’’ Ms Lindgren said.
‘‘A lot of community language schools and organisations have been fairly insular and quiet – but we’re hoping to move into the public realm more and more.’’
Ms Lindgren said only 8per cent of NSW students studied a language for their Higher School Certificate last year. Some schools only offered a limited number of languages in senior years, often inconsistently, meaning interested students had to study by distance education or travel to Merewether High for the Saturday School of Community Languages.
Ms Lindgren said the Hunter Parents and Teachers Association of Community Language Schools was hoping to change this at a grassroots level. If more children were introduced to languages at a young age then there would be demand for a wider range of options for formal study in secondary school, she said.
This in turn would serve as a stepping stone to more opportunities in an increasingly globalised world.
‘‘Australia is only becoming more and more multicultural and it also improves cultural understanding, empathy for others and opens the mind,’’ Ms Lindgren said.
There are other more immediate benefits too. ‘‘Learning a language improves cognitive understanding across the board,’’ she said. ‘‘All studies show that learning a second language actually improves a student’s first language.’’
The Department of Education and Communities funds the Community Languages Schools program, with most Hunter classes taught by parents who are also native speakers.
Ms Lindgren, a volunteer Indonesian teacher, studied the language in high school and university, and worked in the country for six years. Though it was popular to study in the mid-1970s, it was ‘‘depressing’’ that the language was now only offered at Merewether High for the HSC and Hunter River High in junior years, she said.
Just 176 NSW students completed HSC courses in Indonesian last year.
Ms Lindgren said parents tended to influence their children’s subject selections based on ‘‘misconceptions about where languages can take you’’ and urged them to take scripted languages such as Chinese and Japanese, which she believed could be difficult to learn and often had a high dropout rate.
‘‘But Indonesian is the fifth largest population in the world, will soon become one of the top five economies in the world, is our closest neighbour and one of our largest trading partners,’’ she said.
‘‘Australians are going to have more and more to do with Indonesia and our future workforce is going to benefit by knowing the language. Plus, it’s easy.’’