At the crest of a major educational initiative, which has won more than $2 million in Australian government funding support and involves teachers in every Australian state, Scarino and the team at UniSA's Research Centre for Languages and Cultures Education are aiming to make language education a tipping point for real intercultural engagement.
Beyond all the 1980s multicultural rhetoric about "celebrating diversity", Scarino says intercultural engagement is a key to success in the new era of globalisation.
"We are all shaped by our culture. We bring views and understandings to all of our interactions that are a product of our cultural experiences," Scarino said.
"In Australia that makes for a complex mix - in any languages classroom you can find students from a wide variety of cultures with different degrees of association with their cultural roots. So in the educational context we need to ask what happens when more than one culture comes together at the table."
Scarino says intercultural understanding is one of the most powerful skills a person can develop in today's world.
"Our whole way of seeing the world is shaped by our cultural lenses," she said. "As teachers we need to teach our students how to engage with difference."
Scarino believes that while many people navigate cultural differences intuitively, with varying success, there is enormous benefit in finding ways to teach and develop these skills.
"If you consider the nature of the world today - an environment of constant movement of people and ideas, all in an increasingly global community - the ability to engage in interactions at a genuine level with different cultures must be highly prized."
So much so that, according to Scarino, countries such as the UK and Japan are making intercultural education a serious priority across areas of trade and business development.
The advantage of using language education as a starting point for developing these 21st century skills is that it is an education platform that always brings together at least two languages and cultures.
So what will this new way of teaching languages look like? The change, according to Scarino, will focus on a rich array of resources and many opportunities for interaction within the classroom. But more importantly it will focus on teacher talk and feedback to encourage students to make connections.
"Teachers will be expected to build an environment that includes lots of feedback and student interaction, one that sponsors self analysis so that students will challenge their own cultural viewpoints and will be able to use that process to build understanding of other cultures," she said.
"Teachers will come to their classes prepared, with a clear understanding of the linguistic and cultural profile of their students, and will have the courage and appropriate skills to address cultural, political, and social difference, even in contentious areas, as part of language learning and intercultural engagement in the classroom. What we want them to give students is a sophisticated communications repertoire that will ensure they can engage with the widest range of people in the widest range of settings."
With planning for the first phase of the research now set, 20 highly experienced teachers of languages from across the country will be researching new models of teaching in their classrooms with students. The results from these case studies will inform the development team.
"When this research is done we hope to have developed teaching models and exemplars that can be fed into a professional learning program for a further 400 language teachers," Scarino said. "And here we want to have regular feedback from all these teachers about what is happening and yielding the best results in the classroom."
Scarino says this regular feedback will be one of the most significant aspects of the Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning in Practice project .
"Historically, learning languages hasn't been given a high priority in Australia and language educators must wear some responsibility for failing to make clear the value of languages education," she said.
"But that's history. It is quite clear that a new orientation to languages education, one that gives students more than just the mechanics of another language, is what today's and tomorrow's students need. Intercultural language teaching is an extremely powerful concept that will support the development of sophisticated communicators of the future."
The Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning in Practice project has been commissioned and funded by DEST under the Australian Government Quality Teacher Programme (AGQTP). Project leaders are Angela Scarino and Tony Liddicoat from UniSA's Research Centre for Languages and Cultures Education.