Why our students need a second language

Too few high school students are studying foreign languages, ruling themselves out of plum positions on the international employment market, a University of Wollongong academic says.

Only 9 per cent of students enrolled in HSC courses in 2012 studied languages.

Director of the university's language centre, Kerry Dunne, said the low take-up had probably resulted from Australia's lack of shared borders, but an increasingly global community and the "Asian Century" had made learning a language more important.

"The need has not been recognised to a great extent, but now with global business the world has become a lot smaller, so it's important that we be able to talk to our neighbours in their language as well as in English," said Professor Dunne, speaking at the HSC Languages Study Day at the university on Wednesday.

"Speaking only English is a disadvantage in a world where our business partners speak several languages, often including English . . . We are reliant on interpreters to gauge responses in conversation and in commercial and political dealings."

Professor Dunne said some former students had combined languages with degrees in engineering, accounting and education, and had gone on to work for Australian companies in South America, Europe and China.

A student who studied French and marketing now worked at EuroDisney, she said.

"Languages open doors in unexpected places. Most companies have transnational connections, so studying a language can give students an edge in the employment market."

A new national curriculum will include four priority Asian languages - Hindi, Japanese, Mandarin and Indonesian - developed at a cost of more than $25 million over six years.

Prof Dunne said more needed to be done to spark students' interest in languages, especially Asian languages.

The majority of 50 students at yesterday's study day had opted to study French or Italian.

Kirrawee High School student Sam Gray said it was her school's "really good exchange program" to Japan that had caused her to take an interest in learning Japanese.

Classmate Jess Shaftoe said she might continue Japanese studies at night school once she graduated from high school.

"It's really handy to use in business," she said.

Pictured: Professor Kerry Dunne with year 12 students Grace Crisp, Jasper Kitschke and Helena Bonham, all of TIGS, Sienna Wiltshire of Wollongong High and Oceana Strachan of Keira High. Professor Dunne says learning a language can open doors in unexpected places. Photo: KEN ROBERTSON