Teaching languages in regional Australia can be challenging, but these teachers are going the extra mile to help their students connect with their neighbours in Asia.
- Opportunities for students to use their skills are hard to find in regional areas
- A lack of resources means teachers sometimes make their own study materials
- One school is using Skype sessions with sister schools overseas
From Skype sessions with sister schools overseas to long-haul capital city excursions, teachers are finding ways to deal with the issue of distance.
Chinese teacher Sophia Slavich took her Year 8 students at Stawell Secondary College on an excursion to Melbourne, which is about three hours away, for a Chinese meal among other activities last year.
She said it was a “big investment” for an experience that wasn’t easy to come by in the Victorian town, which has a population of just over 6,000 people.
“Being able to go on excursions, and even just go out for a Chinese meal, are really valuable experiences when you’re learning languages — when you can put [the] language into use,” Ms Slavich said.
Parents see potential benefits
Ms Slavich also teaches at Stawell Primary School, which made the decision to swap German for Mandarin Chinese classes about two years ago.
She said the school only had enough resources to offer quality education for one language, and Chinese was chosen because of the Australian Government’s focus on Asian languages.
And like in the capital cities, Ms Slavich believed there was more interest from the Stawell community to learn Chinese.
“The parents I’ve spoken to have all been really supportive of it,” she said.
“There’s quite a big farming community here, and for parents who are interested in developing bigger export markets, I think they can see that it could be a good [skill] for their kids to learn.”
Ms Slavich said since there weren’t enough resources for her students to have their own textbooks, she taught them using self-made materials.
Her Year 9 students were also involved in the Victorian Young Leaders to China program, a six-week in-country immersion program.
Through an exchange program, students from Shanghai also travelled to Stawell and stayed with the primary school students’ families.
“That week was incredible, you can just hear all the kids using Chinese out in the playground because they could actually see [someone] they could talk to,” she said.
Technology helps students practise
Skype sessions are a part of the program in Townsville Grammar School’s Indonesian classes.
The students have been buddying up with students from their sister schools in Bali and Yogyakarta, giving them the opportunity to practice Indonesian with native speakers.
Teacher Shandelle O’Reilly said the lessons are something her students always look forward to.
“I love seeing the excitement on their face when they practise what has been taught in class,” she said.
“[The students] understand what the Indonesian students are saying and respond to their questions.”
Aside from being fun, Ms O’Reilly said the Skype sessions are necessary as there are not many authentic cultural experiences or events offered in the city, despite its size.
To address that issue, she uses Indonesian music to help keep children engaged with their studies. Indonesian students from James Cook University have also helped teach the class songs.
“Repetition accompanied with enjoyment are very important when learning a language,” Ms O’Reilly said.
Her students have also performed at the Townsville Cultural Festival and many community events, allowing them to practice their language skills.
“I would love to have more collaboration with these groups. However, many international students finish their studies and return to Indonesia,” she said.
Ms O’Reilly said demand for Indonesian language teachers is not growing in Townsville, a fact she finds disappointing considering Indonesia’s proximity to Australia.
“I strongly believe that Indonesian language skills can open doors to a wide range of employment opportunities in areas of government, education, business, military, and medicine just to name a few.”
Passion to challenge ‘misconceptions’
Heywood is a small agricultural town with a population of just over 1,700 people, located in Victoria’s south-west.
It has two public schools, the Heywood & District Secondary College and Heywood Consolidated School, and both offer Indonesian classes.
“I’m very satisfied, because the school is very small with only 130 students, but this year I also have four students doing VCE Indonesian,” secondary school teacher Jane Shearwood said.
However she said many students choose not to continue learning Indonesian, because they do not feel connected to the language.
“The language is not relevant to their lives, they don’t meet Indonesian people to make them want to learn to speak Indonesian,” Ms Shearwood said.
Ms Shearwood, who is also a member of a Saman traditional dance group in Melbourne, said she plans to continue teaching Indonesian in regional Australia despite the challenges.
“I feel there needs to be somebody out here with passion,” Ms Shearwood said.
“I really want people to understand that there’s a lot of misconceptions about Islam, about Muslims, about Asian people, here in regional [Australia], where people aren’t exposed to different cultures.”
Melbourne is a four-hour drive from Heywood, and she said it was hard for her organise excursions that could expose her students to Indonesian culture.
Despite the distance and the planning involved, Ms Shearwood said she plans to take her students to Melbourne’s annual Indonesian Film Festival this year.