From the archives: The origins of Japanese at the VSL in 1935 Catherine Bryant

When I started researching the school’s history for my PhD project, I discovered the fascinating story about the origins of Japanese teaching at the school.

Seitz 2

Mr J.A. Seitz, Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools Photo: The Education Gazette, 23 February 1945

The first Saturday Japanese class was held early in 1935 at MacRobertson Girls High School. Mr J.A. Seitz, the Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools, supported the establishment of Japanese as a “special experiment”. The idea was to trial the Japanese classes as a pilot, to ascertain the level of interest among Victorian students. If the classes were overwhelmed with enrolments, Education Department officials would consider rolling the Japanese curriculum out to a small number of mainstream schools.

At that time, the VSL was not actually a school. It did not have a name. But this curriculum innovation was a historic development, because Japanese was not being taught in any government school at the time. But education department officials knew it was necessary for Victorian children to develop an understanding of Japan, which was fast becoming a powerful trading partner. They hoped that Japanese could eventually be introduced into the curriculum of one or two metropolitan high schools.

Japanese article

The Age, 12 February 1935

Amelia Pittman

Amelia Pittman

Irene Ryan

Irene Ryan

The exact date of the first Japanese class is unknown, but they started early in 1935 and more than 50 students enrolled. The teachers were Miss Irene Catherine Ryan, a French teacher from Williamstown High School, and Miss Amelia Pittman from Sandringham Primary School. They had studied Japanese for several years at the University of Melbourne, where it was taught by Mr Moshi Inagaki. Inagaki’s Japanese program only existed on the fringes of the university and it was not widely accepted. It was only offered as an extra subject and did not belong to any faculty.  Despite this, and being paid very little, Inagaki worked enthusiastically to promote Japanese. It is thought that Inagaki supported the establishment of the Saturday classes.

Miss Ryan

Miss Ryan teaching Japanese in 1936 The Herald, 25 July 1936

In 1939, in recognition of their valuable work in developing Japanese studies in Victoria, Miss Ryan and Miss Pittman were invited on a tour of Japan, sponsored by the Japanese education authorities. Today, a study tour to Japan would seem quite ordinary. But in the interwar years in Australia, this was such an unusual and novel event that it was reported in the newspapers around Australia. At that time, Australians new little about Japan but it seemed exotic and they were interested in it. Miss Ryan and Miss Pittman were interviewed on the radio about their impressions of Japan. They remarked that the Japanese people were charming, they were impressed by the Japanese schools, and that “the children had as much freedom as Australians and were just as happy.”


When the war broke out, Japanese language study went out of favour in Victoria. The idea to expand the Japanese curriculum into mainstream schools was shelved. Japanese was not introduced into mainstream secondary schools until many decades later. Mr Inagaki, who had worked so enthusiastically to establish Japanese language studies in Melbourne, was sent to an internment camp in Tatura in country Victoria, along with all other Japanese nationals, who were treated as “enemy aliens”. Throughout the war, the number of students who enrolled in the Saturday classes dwindled to such an extent that education department officials started to question the viability of the classes. But Seitz resisted this pressure and was adamant that they continue. Thanks to the vision of Seitz, who understood the value of language education, the Saturday language classes continued uninterrupted until the present day.


Nesta Potts (nee Doherty), a student of Japanese 1939-1941. Photo courtesy V. Brand and family.

Japanese book

Colloquial Japanese, W.M. McGovern

In conducting this research, I was very fortunate to make contact with one of the early students of Japanese. This was the late Mrs Nesta Potts (nee Doherty), a lovely lady who studied Japanese for three years on Saturdays at MacRobertson Girls High School, starting in 1939. When I met Nesta in 2013, she was in her late eighties, and was thrilled to be interviewed and to share her memories. Nesta was excited to show me her treasured Japanese textbook, Colloquial Japanese, by W.M. McGovern, which she had kept for more than seventy years. Her interest in Japanese study was initially sparked by her mother who loved Japanese art. Nesta recalled the “lovely atmosphere” of the Japanese classes. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a sixteen year old in 1939, and I guess that Japanese language study on a Saturday must have been quite an adventurous and exciting activity for a young woman to pursue.

After leaving school, Nesta joined Army Education, where she taught unit education officers, and she was able to continue her Japanese study. Nesta also had several opportunities to use her Japanese language skills in her working life. During the war, she was responsible for communicating with a Japanese prisoner of war. Later, Nesta became a teacher in the Education Department with a focus on Special Education, and eventually became a Principal. As Principal, there were occasions when she welcomed delegations of visiting Japanese teachers to her school. She recalled delighting them with her ability to speak Japanese.  For a student and teacher of Japanese myself, meeting Nesta was a moving experience and it was an absolute highlight of my time as a research student.

Posted in History, Japanese, Language debate, Uncategorized, VSL Vault | Tagged , , , , ,

Indigenous languages

In the August 31 and September 1 editions of Guardian Australia, there were a series of very interesting articles on the state of indigenous languages in Australia: the first by Helen Davidson is an overview of the national scene and the types of programs that are being run.

The second is a poignant personal reflection on the individual’s relationship to language and background by Stan Grant.

The third is an account of the efforts of one Wiradjuri elder, Stan Grant (Senior) to teach the language to the younger generations

All are highly recommended.


1. Waking our sleeping Indigenous languages: ‘we’re in the midst of a resurgence’           

Helen Davidson

At the start of a major Guardian Australia series, Helen Davidson reports that while the vast number of Indigenous languages are considered endangered, there are many that have a good chance of survival if they are nurtured. Click on the link below to read the full story:

2. If language tells us who we are, then who am I?

Stan Grant

“Inspired by my father and to honour the traditions of our people, I have learned more of the Wiradjuri language. But I am the sum of many parts.

Language and names are markers of identity. This is how we introduce ourselves to the world; how we explain ourselves to each other. I admire this conscious effort to keep themselves and their people alive in the world, but I am wary too.

I am who I am and I am born of a country whose history is what it is. My struggle is to live free to determine my identity unconstrained by the expectations or definitions of others.

Reviving Indigenous languages is in itself a response to a history of oppression and denial. It can be liberating and assertive but like all identity it is a construction.”

Read more:

3. Yamandhu marang? Language does not belong to people, it belongs to country

It was a language that almost died but the efforts of a community – and one man – have brought Wiradjuri back to life. 

Read more:




Posted in bilingualism, Indigenous Languages | Tagged , , ,

French Seminar and Excursion to Degas Exhibition

French Distance Education courses place great emphasis on culture and offer students vast opportunities to explore the rich world of French history and art.

Every year the French faculty takes Year 11, Year 10 and Accelerated 2 Distance Education students to the National Gallery of Victoria for a guided tour of the permanent exhibition of French art, as part of one of our seminars.Degas 1

This year we were lucky to be able to combine a Seminar with a very special visit to the National Gallery of Victoria, which included a talk by a member of the NGV staff and a viewing of the exhibition “DEGAS – A new Vision”.

Impressionism is one of the topics studied in Unit 2.  It also features in the Reading Assessment Task, as well as an oral task.

In the morning the Year 10, the Accelerated 2 and the Year 11 students mastered vocabulary related to the topic of art and paintings, then described some impressionist’s paintings, using newly acquired vocabulary and expressions.  The vocabulary was selected appropriately for the differing language levels. This was followed by a listening comprehension activity with people expressing their views of a particular painting.  Students learned to express their personal perception of and reaction to each work of art.Degas 2

After a short break for lunch, students accompanied by their French teachers went to the National Gallery of Victoria for a one hour lecture by a member of the Gallery staff and a viewing of the exhibition.

Here is what some of our students said:

I enjoyed the seminar and I feel that it helped me to improve my French. My favourite part was of course, the Degas exhibition. I loved not only seeing the works of art but also hearing the history behind them. Overall, an amazing day!        Patrick Grave

I thought the Degas exhibition was very interesting, I learnt a lot about French art in the 19th Century. I particularly loved the sculptures he made, my favourites were La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze  Ans and his painting of the Belleli Family.   Monique Heslop

Well, I personally enjoyed the excursion. It was the first excursion I have done with the VSL, and I liked it. The class lesson we had was very good. I didn’t feel pressured to contribute unless I was confident and I learnt new things as well as recapping on old ones. The excursion itself, to see the Degas Gallery was interesting, especially being an ex-studio art student. All in all I thought the excursion was enjoyable and well worth it.   Fynn

The exhibition was great. For someone like me who does not often go to galleries I was fascinated by Degas’ skill and effort portrayed in his works. In all, I really enjoyed the day and would love to come to another of its type.      Louis Commins

I found the gallery visit very interesting. The sculpture was especially amazing since it stood  out🙂. The paintings were superb! As for the seminar, to me the information about the paintings, grammar and help about the SACs were very useful. I thought  it would be scary, since I missed the first two, but I was  pleasantly surprised when the atmosphere  was not at all intimidating  but quite  the opposite🙂 meeting  other students who are interested  in learning French was fun and sort of relaxing  knowing that there  are also other students  with  similar interests to me. Merci beaucoup.      Katarina

The Degas art exhibition was a perfect opportunity to  enrich our understanding of French art and culture. The lecture prior to the visit particularly helped, with new vocabulary about art expression introduced to us. Overall, these events combined to give a great experience to students, which I thoroughly enjoyed.      Rebekka Krishtul

I thought that the lecture at The NGV was very intriguing and informative. The information gave a very good insight into the life of Degas and his artworks. I found the exhibition to be an incredible experience that allowed us to appreciate the originality and splendour of Degas’ works and gave us an idea of what we will be studying next year.  Brooke O’Brien

I found looking at all the different styles of art Degas made very interesting. There were some amazing pieces of art work made in a range of mediums. Learning about Degas, his life, how he made his art, why he painted what he did and the historical context of his work gave us a broader understanding of the whole exhibition.       Kyra Kerwin.

Posted in Art and Language, French, VSL Vault | Tagged , , ,

Being the VSL “historian” 2012-2015 – Catherine Bryant


Dr Catherine Bryant at graduation

As many people know, the VSL celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015. Some may also be aware that for the past four years, I researched the VSL history for my PhD project at Swinburne University. This was a special project that was initiated by the VSL. It was supported by a three-year scholarship called the VSL PhD scholarship in memory of Professor Michael Clyne.

Throughout this research project, the VSL gave its full support, and gave me full access to materials, documents and personnel for the purpose of this study. Indeed, the VSL community supported this research project enthusiastically.

I was thrilled to be the chosen candidate, because I knew that this project was a special opportunity. While some people might wonder why anyone would want to pursue such a project, a PhD was something I had always wanted to do. I came to this project as an experienced secondary teacher of both Japanese and history, and it enabled me to pursue research in three areas of my own expertise and interest; languages, education and history. Prior to becoming a teacher I had completed a Master of Arts by research in Japanese, so I was familiar with what was involved in research, I had written a thesis before, and I felt confident that I had the skills to do it. I resigned from my teaching position so that I could work on this project full time from 2012 until the end of 2015. I submitted my thesis for examination in December 2015.

Early on, I was struck by the enormity of the task. The VSL teaches 49 languages in 40 centres and it has an eighty-year history. My PhD thesis needed to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. That sounds like a massive document, which it is. But my research needed to have a clear focus. I wondered how on earth I should approach such a mammoth topic within the limits of a PhD?

I soon became convinced that my focus for this project should be firmly anchored in the discipline of history. I had found several old newspaper articles and government reports. But the most exciting discovery was at the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) in North Melbourne , where  I found a box of archived education department papers that document the first decades of the school’s history. Dating back to the 1930s, the papers were dog-eared and fragile, and many were written in copperplate handwriting. These kinds of primary sources represented a goldmine of original material for my project.


Among the documents, I discovered some original attendance rolls from the school’s first Saturday classes in Japanese, Italian, Dutch and Russian in the 1930s and 1940s. When I saw this, I realised that some of the early students or staff of the school may still be alive and be able to meet me for an interview.

But there was a problem. For the first fifty years of its existence, the VSL did not have a name. It was not an official school. It did not have a building or a headmaster. It was not like a “normal” school. There was no database of alumni that I could consult. So how could I track down these ex-students? I noticed that in the margins of the old attendance rolls, education department officials had written the names of the day schools that the students had come from. This represented a vital clue. Many students had come  from MacRobertson Girls High School, Melbourne High School, and University High School. I reconstructed the lists of names and approached staff at these three schools and asked them to help me contact these ex-students. This was a long process and it depended on the goodwill and generosity of people who patiently trawled through their databases for me.

Through this process, I was able to meet several VSL students from the 1930s and 1940s. Meeting them was an absolute thrill and hearing their stories brought the box of archived documents to life. It enriched the information that I had found, and I was able to include snippets of their stories in my PhD thesis. This experience highlighted the valuable opportunity that this PhD project had brought. Without this special research project, the chance to meet these interesting people and hear their fascinating stories would have been lost.

In the next few blog posts, I will write about some of the people that I met and some of the stories that I discovered from the early decades of the school’s history.

Posted in History, Uncategorized, VSL Vault | Tagged ,

Q & A with Zoe Kaufmann – teacher of Japanese


Zoe Kaufmann

Zoe Kaufmann first began formal language study when she was in Grade 5, and has been in love with the VSL and its languages since!

She fondly remembers her first few lessons at the VSL. At the age of 10, one of her friends dragged her along to the Year 7 Japanese class at the Matthew Flinders campus.

 Zoe was going to start halfway through the year, and having had no experience studying Japanese since kindergarten, she was somewhat bewildered at the thought of jumping in the deep end of a high school class. Luckily, her mother (a karate-ka) and her brother (who had previously studied the language) were keen to join her at the VSL and gave her much-needed study partners through the initial stages of learning hiragana and katakana.

She remembers her first teacher fondly, particularly the fun games she would play with her students. Her teacher went to endless lengths to assist her as she caught up to her classmates who had started half a year before her. Her classmates were often a little bit noisy but she loved the vibrant atmosphere in the classroom and the palpable passion every single classmate had for the language. Zoe adored every new piece of grammar that she came across and took (almost) every new piece of vocabulary to heart. She never missed an opportunity to partake in a cultural event and outside of class she watched hours and hours of Japanese cartoons (all in the name of study, of course).

Zoe studied for four years before leaving to continue her Japanese study in her day school. During this time she visited Japan twice, first for a three month student exchange and later for a four week study trip.

Two years later, however, she was back, not to study Japanese, but to instead begin her journey learning Mandarin Chinese. She studied Chinese for two years, loving the exposure to the country’s rich culture and history. She delighted in learning Mandarin’s five tones and the many Chinese characters she came across, which also helped her immensely with her study of Japanese kanji. Zoe went on to study in the VSL’s Matthew Flinders VCE class for a year, after which she took Chinese as a major at Deakin University. Zoe has plans to travel to China sometime in the next few years to deepen her knowledge.

Zoe returned to the VSL’s Year 7-10 Japanese class the following year to act as a language assistant. Welcomed back with open arms, she felt incredibly privileged to work with her supervising teacher who had a wealth of knowledge and teaching ideas. Zoe’s passion for the Japanese language burned brighter than ever and she felt at home sharing her knowledge about the language and country she loved.



Origami in the classroom

Following her supervising teacher’s retirement at the start of 2015, Zoe took over the reins of the class and has never enjoyed teaching more! She loves spending time coming up with novel lesson ideas and cultural experiences that spark passion in her own students, much like her first teacher inspired her at the beginning of her own journey all those years ago. She says:

 “My favourite Japanese cuisine is definitely okonomiyaki – savoury vegetable pancakes made with cabbage. I have fond memories of sitting around my host family’s table and drawing words in sauce on our pancakes with my host sisters!

 My favourite TV show in Japanese is Detective Conan, a crime/mystery show that has been airing on Japanese TV for 20 years. I love trying to solve the mysteries before the next episode comes out (sometimes I even guess correctly!).

 My favourite app is JED – an Android Japanese-English dictionary. Boring, yes, but a good dictionary is a language-learner’s best friend! My other favourite tool is Google, of course. I don’t know how anyone managed to learn a language before the internet!”


Posted in bilingualism, Chinese, Japanese, teachers, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Launch of Virtual English as an Additional Language (EAL) New Arrivals Program

On Thursday 15 June 2016, Dr David Howes, Assistant Deputy Secretary, Schools, Department of Education and Training launched the Virtual EAL New Arrivals Program, an initiative of the Department of Education and Training and the Victorian School of Languages.


Dr David Howes

Victoria welcomes thousands of new settlers every year and the Department of Education and Training has the responsibility of providing intensive English language instruction, mainly through the English Language Schools and Centres and EAL specialists that are generally based in the metropolitan area and regional centres.

However, there is an ever-increasing number of EAL students in geographically remote areas of Victoria where specialised EAL services are not available. The Virtual EAL New Arrivals Program has been set up to meet these growing needs, through the use of interactive technologies.

The launch began with an actual lesson via video conferencing and interactive software. The assembled guests were able to observe new arrival students from eight regional locations participate in a virtual lesson on parts of the human body. The students interacted with their teachers, accessed relevant visuals, answered verbal questions and sang a song.

bScreen shot

Regional schools link via video conferencing


Students complete questions online

Dr Howes explained that in 2014 discussions began with Victorian School of Languages about how the Department could realise an online program using virtual technologies and EAL expertise, and these discussions resulted in a pilot, the first of its kind in Australia.

The pilot was evaluated by the Language Testing Research Centre at the University of Melbourne and the findings indicated that the Program had a number of positive impacts and these included improved student achievement against the EAL standards, development of student confidence and willingness to communicate.

Early in 2016, the Deputy Premier, Minister for Education, the Honourable James Merlino, approved the formal establishment of the Virtual EAL New Arrivals Program

dIMG_1355Currently, there are 27 students from 17 schools receiving intensive English language support in a virtual environment. Students who have participated in the Program have been located in places such as Murrayville and Ouyen, in the far north-west of the State, Bundarra in the far south-west and as far north as Mitta Mitta and Wodonga.


“Head and Shoulders, Knees and Feet…”

Dr Howes said: “What we witnessed here today and what we are here to celebrate…is a culmination of so many people working together over a number of years…The challenges of distance and lack of availability of specialist English language teachers, that were once a barrier to support, have now been overcome through the specialised and expert use of virtual and other technologies, so that no matter where an isolated newly-arrived student lives in Victoria, they will be able to access EAL provision… Special thank you also to the Principal and staff of the Victorian School of Languages for designing, trialling, implementing and managing the program.”

fIMG_1364Schools wishing to find out more about the program can contact the Victorian School of Languages on 9474 0500.

Posted in bilingualism, EAL, growing up bilingual, Migration, Regional and Rural programs, Uncategorized, VSL Vault | Tagged , ,

Italian Study Tour 2015-2016


Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast


On Saturday, 26th December 2016, 14 students studying Italian at the Victorian School of Languages (both Distance Education and Centre students) and their VSL Italian teachers, left Australia for a three week study tour to Salerno, Italy.

This is the first time that such a tour has been organized by the Victorian School of Languages.



One of the classes at the Accademia

Students attended Italian classes at the ‘Accademia Italiana’ in the mornings and were divided into two groups (beginner and intermediate). The Accademia teachers were highly professional and specialized in teaching Italian as a second language.  After lunch, students attended site seeing trips or seminars, all arranged by the Accademia.



Practising Italian at the Accademia


Paestum, Province of Campania


Some of these excursions included Amalfi, Paestum, Pompeii, Naples, and a weekend in Rome.







Our students ranged from Years 9 to 11 and they all feel that their Italian speaking, writing and listening skills, as well as their understanding of the cultural and historic aspects of this important region in Italy has greatly improved after the three weeks.




Being billeted to host families for the three weeks also helped to improve their speaking and comprehension skills as none of the host families could speak English.



Lights of Salerno



Salerno is a pretty and very safe medium sized town of about 150,000 people near the Amalfi Coast, about 50 km south of Naples in Southern Italy, an ideal town for such a tour, due its mild winters and location.



Piazza Del Plebiscito, Naples



Inside the Colosseum


Because this study tour was so successful and both student and parent feedback was very positive, we hope to be able to offer a similar tour in the future.



 The VSL would like to sincerely thank our sponsor ‘DIVELLA’, the major brand distributed by BONFOOD, for contributing generously towards the study tour. DIVELLA covered the costs of our weekend in Rome and provided each student with a study tour windcheater.



For more information about DIVELLA products and the BONFOOD company, click on the following link:                                                                      



Posted in Italian | Tagged