By Accident or Design? the Origins of the Victorian School of Languages

Article excerpt

Abstract

In 1935, the then Minister of Public Instruction established the delivery of two foreign languages under the title of a special experiment taught at Mac.Robertson Girls' High School in Melbourne. This was the first step in the creation of what is known today as the Victorian School of Languages (VSL). It was at the time the small, seemingly unobtrusive development of the teaching of two new languages--Japanese and Italian--in Victoria, which over time would be seen as a giant step in the area of the expansion of delivery of languages other than English for the State of Victoria. The emergence of this special experiment was a pioneering development in a context in which languages other than English were neither welcomed nor expected. The country had only just emerged from the Depression and its massive postwar migration program was still yet to come. Despite the jingoist tendencies and monolingual pressures that were ever present in the interwar period in Australia, neither of these was strong enough to curb the introduction of these two new languages, Japanese and Italian. This paper seeks to examine and explore the uncertain origins of the VSL, and the oft-repeated assertion that the VSL was an accidental development, rather than a planned or projected one.

Key Words

language education in Australia, Japanese, Italian

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Introduction

In 1987, the Minister for Education in Victoria, Ian Cathie, in assessing the recommendations for the new role of the Saturday School of Modern Languages (SSML) in the Department's language policy entitled The place of languages other than English in Victorian schools, accepted the recommendations of the working party which included upgrading the status of the school, establishing both a position of Principal and a School Council, and, most importantly, changing the name from the Saturday School of Modern Languages (SSML) to the Victorian School of Languages (VSL) (Panousieris, 1993). The new status accorded to the VSL, implicit in its name, was in marked contrast to its fragile beginnings.

The VSL was founded in 1935 as a special experiment of Saturday morning language classes offered at Mac.Robertson Girls' High School. Its Principal at the time was Mary Hutton and the School had been one of the oldest schools in Melbourne with a history stretching back to 1854 (Blainey, 1984). It was, according to one report, the most established education institution of the time as it had served as a primary teachers' training college and, for a short period of time, as the department of Public Instruction (Merlino, 1988). The new school premises in South Melbourne had only been opened the year before, in 1934, as a result of a donation to the State Government of Victoria, by Sir MacPherson Robertson, of a new building, converted into a school (Merlino, 1988).

What would be offered at Mac.Robertson Girls' High School was initially conceived as a small, partially isolated case of meeting an educational need. For all intents and purposes it was exactly that. The languages normally offered within the Victorian education system, until the arrival of Japanese and Italian at Mac.Rob in 1935, consisted mainly of French and German, with Latin and Ancient Greek in a small number of non-government schools. In audacious fashion, the school's first two languages were Japanese and Italian.

That these were the first languages offered by this special experiment speaks volumes for the integrity and political firmness of brave individuals not to succumb to jingoistic anti-Axis campaigns against powers that would become, in a just few years time, arch enemies of Australia. This new language offering was established in the immediate post-depression period before the mass migration program of the late 1940s and, as will be demonstrated, is an anomaly and a fortuitous combination of events both in terms of its benefactor origins and the choice of languages which attracted hostility. …