Immersion Education Down Under

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3

By Michele de Courcy, Senior Lecturer in Language Education, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Victoria



Bilingual schooling is not a new phenomenon in Australia. Clyne (1986, p. 11) notes that before 1916 one could find sixty bilingual schools teaching in German, Gaelic, French and other languages at both the primary and secondary school level.

With the onset of the First World War, the bilingual schools were closed. During the 1970s, with the politics of multiculturalism, came a renewed interest in languages. The distinction between ”community languages’ and ”modern languages’ was removed, and the term ”LOTE’ (Languages Other Than English) came to be used for all. In 1981, a German bilingual program started at an elementary school in Melbourne followed, in 1984, by a French bilingual school located in the national capital, Canberra.

At the secondary school level, the first immersion program started in 1985 in Queensland (Berthold, 1995). It is a French immersion program, and served as a model for the other programs which were later set up in Queensland. In 1990, a Hebrew immersion program commenced at a private secondary school in Melbourne.


An Explosion of Interest

The National Policy on Languages (Lo Bianco, 1987) and the DEET White Paper on Australia÷s languages (1992) both give recognition to the potential for children in immersion programs to achieve high levels of competence in LOTE, and in the early 1990s, interest in immersion programs exploded. The enthusiasm of those participating in the programs was communicated to the appropriate educational administrators who, in turn, transferred this enthusiasm into explicit government policy and funding to support immersion programs. However, this interest is concentrated primarily in two states ­ Queensland and Victoria. (Note that, in Australia, school education is funded and administered at a state level, even though the federal government does make pronouncements on education.) For example, in Queensland, the Ingram and John report (1990, p. vi) gave explicit support for the expansion of immersion programs throughout the state. The Victorian Government÷s 1994 MACLOTE Report also recognized the importance of immersion programs as ”the best models for achieving high levels of communicative competence in LOTE.’ In both states, funding, specifically tagged for the establishment of immersion programs, was supplied to government schools. Funds were available to hire additional teachers, to allow time release for preparation of materials, and, in the case of Victoria, for internal and external evaluation.

In Queensland, one mainly finds secondary school immersion programs (with one, in German, at the elementary level), whereas in Victoria, one finds mostly elementary school immersion programs, with a few at the secondary school level. In these two states, the pioneer and lighthouse schools, to use Berthold÷s (1995) terms were, respectively, late immersion and early immersion schools (see table page 3).

Early or Late Immersion

The immersion programs currently found in Australia are either designed for the maintenance of a mother tongue other than English, or have as their goal the acquisition of a second language by children who speak English. Another distinction is that between the early immersion programs at primary school level (children aged 5-11) and late immersion programs at secondary school level (children aged 12-18). There are also a small number of programs at the university level, in Japanese, Chinese and French. There are no total immersion programs such as those found in Canada, as the concept of a full immersion program has proved difficult to ”sell’ in the Australian context. Depending on the individual school or district, some late immersion students will have had exposure to the immersion language in elementary school. Others may have studied a different language at elementary school. In either case, their exposure to language learning is likely to have been minimal ­ usually only one-half to one hour of instruction per week.

In some schools, such as Camberwell Primary School in Victoria (see School Profile), the program is compulsory for every child in the school, but most programs are voluntary.

If the children have less than 50% of their timetable in the new language, the program is said to be a ”bilingual program,’ rather than an ”immersion program.’ But there are similarities between the programs in that they are all based on teaching language through content.

Researchers completing evaluations of some of the programs (see bibliography) have found that parents always want to know:

  • if the children÷s English suffers in a language immersion program;
  • if their knowledge of the content will suffer (especially if Math is one of the subjects taught via the second language);
  • if the children will become proficient in the language used as the means of instruction.

Similar to the earlier Canadian investigations, positive outcomes relating to the above questions have been found in the Australian research.

Summary of Immersion Programs in Australia


Language Victoria Queensland S.A. (1) W.A. (2) N.T. (3) ACT (4) NSW (5)
Level E S E S E E S E E E
German 1 1 1 1 1          
French 1 2   4 1 1     1  
Indonesian 1     1            
Hebrew   1                
Arab L1 1                  
Chinese L1 2                  
Chinese L2 1     1            
Japanese L2 3     1            
Vietnamese L1 3                  
Auslan (6) L1 & L2 2                  
Greek, Slavic &
Macedonian L1
Italian L2       1   2 1      
        n/a 4   21    

Notes on Table:   (1) South Australia, (2) Western Australia, (3) Northern Territory, (4) Australian Capital Territory, (5) New South Wales, (6) Australian Sign Language, E=Elementary, S=Secondary, L1=Heritage Language Program, L2=Immersion Program for native English speakers, n/a=information not available.

Finding Teachers

The persistent problem with all immersion programs in Australia is finding the right sort of teacher ­ someone who speaks the language well enough to teach in it, and who has sufficient content-area knowledge. Coordinators of programs in elementary schools note the challenge. Those graduates with sufficiently high language skills have usually been prepared to teach that language and one other subject at secondary school level, whereas in the primary school, they need to be competent in all of the Key Learning Areas (KLA) taught across the curriculum, especially Mathematics. The eight KLAs, recommended by the federal government and implemented via the state and territory education departments, are English, Mathematics, Science, Technology, Studies of Society and the Environment (or Human Society and Environment), Health and Physical Education, the Arts and LOTE.

For those programs which teach in aboriginal languages, there was recently a change in policy in the Northern Territory, where most of them are located, and the Minister of Education decided to no longer support the bilingual programs. However, there was such a protest against this decision, both from within the Territory and from the rest of the country, that it was decided to evaluate the programs before discontinuing them.

For the rest, in spite of the difficulties related to staffing and workload, the enthusiasm of the children and of their teachers, and the excellent language and content outcomes of the programs, continue to inspire other schools to try this method of obtaining true competence in a second language.



Berthold, M. (1995). Rising to the bilingual challenge. Melbourne: NLLIA.

Clyne, M. (1986). An early start: Second language at primary school. Melbourne: River Seine.

de Courcy, M. C. (2002). Learners÷ experiences of immersion education: Case studies of French and Chinese. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

de Courcy, M. C., & Burston, M. (2000). Learning mathematics through French in Australia. Language and Education, 14, (2), 75-95.

de Courcy, M. C., Burston, M., & Warren, J. (1999). Language devel-opment in an Australian French early partial immersion program. Babel: Journal of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations, 34, (2), 14-20, 38.

de Courcy, M. C. (1997). Benowa High: A decade of French immersion in Australia. In R. K. Johnson & M. Swain (Eds.), Immersion: International perspectives (pp. 44-62). Cambridge: Cambridge Press.

Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). (1991). Australia÷s language: The Australian language and literacy policy. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Devlin, B. (1997). Links between first and second language instruction in Northern Territory bilingual programs: Evolving policies, theories and practice. In P. McKay, et al. (Eds.), The bilingual interface project report. Canberra: DEETYA.

Elder, C. (1989). Drowning or waving? An evaluation of an Italian partial immersion program at a Victorian primary school. Melbourne Papers in Applied Linguistics, 1, (2), 9-17.

Fernandez, S. (1992). Room for two: A study of bilingual education at Bayswater South Primary School. Canberra: NLLIA.

Ingram, D. & John, G. (1990). The teaching of languages and cultures in Queensland: Towards a language education policy for Queensland schools. Nathan, QLD: Griffith University, Centre for Applied Linguistics and Languages.

Lo Bianco, J. (1987). National policy on languages. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Lorch, S., McNamara, T., & Eisikovits, E. (1992). Late Hebrew immersion at Mount Scopus College, Melbourne: Towards complete Hebrew fluency for Jewish day school students. Language and Language Education, 2, (1), 1-29.

McKay, P. (Ed.). (1997). The bilingual interface project. Canberra: DEETYA.

Ministerial Advisory Council on Languages Other Than English (MACLOTE). (1994). LOTE report to the Minister for Education. Melbourne: Directorate of Schools Education.

Read, J. (1996). Recent develop-ments in Australian late immersion language education. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 17, 469-485.

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