Australia: Not minding our languages

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 29 21:03:07 UTC 2007

Not minding our languages

Jewel Topsfield
May 29, 2007

AUSTRALIANS are dunces when it comes to foreign languages and this is
damaging the nation's performance in trade, tourism and cultural
So says the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the elite Group
of Eight universities, which will hold a Languages in Crisis summit in
Canberra next week to discuss ways of improving the situation.
Only 13 per cent of year 12 students study a foreign language and 6
per cent learn an Asian language, while just half the school-aged
population has had any form of foreign language learning. Australian
Academy of the Humanities executive director John Byron said the
shortage of bilingual speakers was "the great unacknowledged skills
crisis in Australia".

"The fact the rest of the world is starting to learn English is not
reason for us not to bother," he said. "There is plenty of anecdotal
and research evidence that we are failing to pursue all the
alternatives we can in trade because people prefer to do business with
those willing to speak their language." As an example, Mr Byron said
Australia was one of the world's largest exporters of wine and Germany
was one of the largest importers, but the two countries did not do
much trade.

"We've just spent money on policing in the South Pacific in the budget
and sent medical aid workers into Aceh and no one can say, 'Where does
it hurt?"' He said children needed to start learning languages when
they were young and he would like to see the Government give them the
same priority as maths and science. Federal Education Minister Julie
Bishop said the Government spent $112 million on languages in schools
over 2005-08.

"While we support the teaching of languages in schools, the Australian
Government believes that we must strive for higher standards in
English literacy as a national priority," she said. The June 7 summit
will bring together representatives from industry, education, trade
and aid.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at


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