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"It is our duty to make language come alive". Full text of Sarah Payne's acceptance speech.

Date: 26 November 2015

I am deeply humbled and honoured to be here this evening as the winner of the inaugural Patji-Dawes award, an award which is profound recognition of the role that I played many years ago in the secondary education of an extraordinary student: Derek Bayley. 

Firstly, I would like to offer my sincerest gratitude to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language for recognising the work of foreign language teachers in Australia. I am sure that in years to come, the Patji-Dawes award will become an accolade that will be highly sought after in language teaching circles. In my career, I have encountered numerous teachers who have, like me, dedicated their careers to opening young minds to the joys of language learning. For us, there could be nothing more fulfilling than receiving public recognition for the work we have done with our students. For me, I cannot think of an award I would rather win.

Secondly, I would like to thank Derek for taking the time to write such a thorough nomination and for commending me so highly. I can only imagine all the things a young man would rather be doing, while living and working in a place like the Hague, practising international law, so I will be forever grateful. I should not be surprised at the thought and effort that were put into Derek’s nomination of me; to me Derek has always exemplified the statement that “if there is a job worth doing, it is worth doing well”.  Of course I would also like to thank him for having travelled back from Europe to be here this evening.

When I first met Derek, I knew he had an extraordinary gift for language learning, and it was a privilege and joy to have been his teacher. I hope that all language teachers understand what I mean when I say that every now and then we encounter students who ‘just get it’- whose innate talent is matched by passion, whose ambition is matched by drive and persistence. In my career I have been fortunate to have come across numerous boys like this, but Derek still stands out from the crowd.

When researching the namesakes of the award, I came across the synopsis of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Lieutenant, which tells the story of the friendship between Lieutenant Dawes, a soldier with the First Fleet to New South Wales, and a young Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang. The synopsis stated that “it's clear that they developed a relationship that was mutually respectful, playful, and warmly affectionate… one of those friendships that can arise between a clever young person and an adult”. This would be a perfect summation of the bond that Derek and I forged in the classroom and have maintained ever since.  It was lovely for me to come across this sentence and to discover the parallel between the relationship I share with Derek, and indeed with many of my students, and the names behind the award I am receiving tonight.

My journey here this evening, from being a monolingual country girl to becoming the Head of Languages at a prestigious Canberra school AND being the recipient of the Patji-Dawes award, has been on a long and winding road, and I have of course not made it here alone. My parents, both career teachers themselves, gave my brother and me incredible educational opportunities that shaped our lives. We were privileged to have had an excellent public school education at Kelso High School in Bathurst, but opportunities for language immersion were virtually non-existent in Bathurst in the 80s. In fact, I don’t think I had met anyone other than my teachers who spoke another language, let alone 2, or 3, until my family hosted a German exchange student in 1989, and I returned to Germany a year later to stay with her family.

I still remember these weeks fondly. The challenge of everyday encounters such as ordering a hot chocolate, buying bread rolls or tram tickets made me feel truly alive. I was awestruck when I attended English lessons with my German counterparts, as they were already adept enough in English to be able to analyse passages of Macbeth. Stefanie and I developed a profound and lasting friendship, which has endured for over 26 years. Without a doubt, my short exchange to Germany was when my love affair with languages really began, and it’s the reason why I am now so passionate about finding opportunities for my students to participate in transformational experiences such as exchanges.

This is my 15th year at Canberra Grammar School. Consider this for a moment: I can honestly say that there has not been a day in my 15 years at the school where I did not look forward to coming to work. How many people can say that about their chosen career? Being in the classroom, working with boys like Derek Bailey, and sharing with them my passion for language learning is extremely fulfilling, in different ways, every single day. 

A great challenge that language teachers face in Australia is making our students see the importance of learning a foreign language. English is ubiquitous, and for many, a foreign language is simply a subject that they must learn in Years 7 and 8 to comply with educational directives. We all know that having a second language will open doors for our students- doors that right now they do not even know exist, but our challenge, and I would even go so far as saying, our duty, is to get our students to understand this too.

I have been extremely fortunate in my career to have had numerous opportunities to help make the languages I teach come alive for my students. In my time at Canberra Grammar School, I have led five month-long study tours of France and two month-long trips to Germany. 25, 15 year old boys on the road for a month on the other side of the world…- oh- the stories I could tell… !!

Of course not every student can participate in one of our trips or an exchange but it is still our duty to find ways to make the language seem relevant and come alive. Given the brief time I have today, I would just like to tell you about a recent speaking assessment task my colleagues and I created for our Year 8 French students. The boys were tasked with making a 3 minute film with French dialogue about their family, pets and house. Many boys made films which astounded me, and my friends and colleagues in France when I shared the films with them, but one boy in particular excelled in this task, even though he is not necessarily the strongest student in the cohort. When I wrote to his parents to tell them how impressed I was, his mother responded, saying, “So often at this age, the hardest part is getting boys to do more than the bare minimum. It is wonderful to know that on this occasion he did much more than that and I want you to know that his enjoyment in doing the exercise, and making the language real, was palpable”.

As language teachers, we have the opportunity to make both learning and assessment enjoyable for our students – something not all subject areas can claim to do! By doing this in the early years, I believe we can take a step forward in the battle against the linguistic mediocrity that we suffer from in Australia. My understanding is that approximately 12% of Australian students continue the study of a foreign language until Year 12. I am very proud to say that at Canberra Grammar School, next year, 47 of our 148 Year 12 students will study a foreign language; several of whom, like Derek, will, study 2 languages. I believe one of the most important contributing factors to the staggering number of boys we have continuing with languages, is that my colleagues and I make the learning fun, and that we strive to connect their learning to their real life experiences – to who they are now, and who they could become in the future.

In conclusion, I would like to say once again how grateful I am to receive this award—especially knowing that I work every day with many teachers who, as Derek would testify, are as equally deserving as I am.

Thank you all for coming this evening; Thank you Robert (Dessaix) for your address, I think my parents, who were both English teachers, were just as excited about the prospect of meeting you as they were about me winning this award!!

Thank you to my family members for being here and thank you, mum and dad for sending me on that first exchange to Germany. To Tom, my husband, thank you for listening so patiently when I go on about how much I enjoy my job- for a man who works in IT, this is not always easy to hear!  Derek- thank you for literally moving heaven and earth to be here this evening; To be honest, I am still pinching myself to think that a former student would go to such lengths for me.

Finally, again, thank you to the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Languages for instigating this award. I will endeavour to ensure that all I do in language teaching in the future, will continue to make me a worthy recipient of the Patji-Dawes award.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University