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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2248

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN(6.08) —As the National Party spokesman on education I rise to speak briefly on the report entitled the `National Policy on Languages', which is the Government's response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Edu- cation and the Arts entitled `A National Language Policy'. With other speakers I agree that the Government's response is conservative. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) made a statement, as follows:

National policy on languages starts from the premise that English is the national language. The report examines in detail ways to improve the teaching of English and to ensure that all groups in the community have effective command of the English language, including adults who need literacy programs. This reiteration of the basic importance of proper teaching and learning of English is welcomed and endorsed by the Government.

That seems to me to be one of the very important elements in this report; namely, that the literacy rates of ordinary Australians are bad and that they have fallen. I accept the fact that it is the responsibility of the schools and the State governments to teach the children, but I do not believe that they are being taught the skills to allow them to express themselves properly and this, perhaps, is the basis of some of the problems. Page 195 of the report states:

It is proposed that a concerted and well-planned campaign be implemented during 1988 to attempt to improve levels of adult literacy.

I sometimes wonder whether the reading by looking scheme that was introduced to the education of our children some years ago has been helpful. It is amazing that some children can go through 10 years or more of school and yet be barely literate. I commend, as does Senator Macklin, the volunteers who help people with literacy problems. It is very hard to realise that over a million Australians cannot read or write their own names. They certainly need help in this regard.

It is a long time since I was at school, but in those days grammar and spelling were so important. I like to think that I can spell well. I do not know whether honourable senators will agree with me when I say that I am literate. They might not agree with me at all.

Senator Robertson —Don't tempt me!

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —Thank you. I hope the honourable senator was saying nice things. If one does not have proper training--

Senator Watson —Isn't this a reflection of what is happening in Queensland, as well as the rest of Australia?

Senator BJELKE-PETERSEN —I think it is something that needs to be looked at by the departments of education in every State. This problem does not occur just in Queensland. If Senator Watson went around the schools in Tasmania he would find that the same problems exist there. I am not holding it up as something peculiar to Queensland. I am trying to explain to the Senate in my own works why I think we have some of these problems. I do not know whether the school my daughter teaches at gives students spelling lists, but I know that the school my granddaughter attends does so. It is very important that children know how to spell. One must learn the basics. If one does not know the basics, it is a bit like being asked to play a Beethoven concerto when one has not learnt to play the scales. Another illustration would be asking someone who has not done the necessary training to run a four-minute mile. It is important that all teachers in all schools teach the basic skills and help children to express themselves, to write and to spell properly. I believe that all of those things are very important for good communication. One theory suggests that it is all right for children to spell phonetically, that they should be allowed to write stories spelling words the way the words sound. That is the way many young people write words. I had a letter the other day from a nice young man. The letter was certainly written phonetically.

A section in the report deals with English as a second language for migrants and Aborigines. English should be taught to migrants, for it is the language they have to speak and deal with in their everyday lives. They have come to Australia to live and to work, and English is Australia's basic language. There is a great need for migrants and Aborigines to be able to speak English. If I went to Germany to live, I believe I would have to learn German because I would not expect other people to accommodate me if I could speak only English. I learnt French at high school, but when I visited the European Parliament a couple of years ago I found that I was unable to speak French, mainly because, I suppose, I had not been using it and I had forgotten what I had learnt at school all those years ago.

The States are already working to ensure that the Aboriginal languages are being protected from extinction. The report says that it is intended to supplement funding of State and Territory governments by another $6m over a period of three years to ensure that Aboriginal languages do not die out. That is also important.

There is a section in the report that deals with other languages. Page 26 of the report deals with languages other than English that are being taught in schools. It states:

Only 17.3 per cent of all school students study one or more languages other than English at any one time. Fewer than one third of all Australian schools teach one or more languages other than English. Only 10 per cent of primary schools teach any language other than English. 15 per cent of all secondary schools do not teach any language other than English.

I learnt French and Latin at high school. Senator Macklin and Senator Teague mentioned Latin in this debate. I must say that I liked Latin when I was at school. I do not know whether my teacher would have said that I was brilliant, but I was very disappointed when I did not get an A for Latin in my junior, because I liked it and I worked hard at it. Latin helps students with grammar, with parsing and in understanding how words are formed. It is important, but it seems to be dying out. I used to think that it was part of the universal language. Doctors used to use Latin when they wrote prescriptions. Now they write English, but what they write is nearly as bad as Latin because one can never read what they write.

I have to question the wisdom of establishing the huge network of committees outlined in this national policy on languages, whose purpose will be to achieve the aims stated, such as promoting better literacy, and Australian students learning a second language. I have no argument with this, but I wonder whether it is necessary to have such an enormous number of committees when we are always talking about less government. We should be thinking about reducing bureaucracy, not increasing it. The real challenge will be to find an easy way to do this without spending a lot of money.

I draw the Senate's attention to the fact that 20 years ago 40 per cent of secondary students learnt a second language. Today, only about 12 per cent do. Twenty years ago literacy rates were better. Do we need all these committees that will cost money to return to the better standards that we had 20 years ago? I do not believe so. I have been very interested to read Mr Joseph Lo Bianco's report on the national policy on languages and I am glad to know that the Government has made this response to the Senate Committee's original report.