[lg policy] Australia: Mass Asian language program is not sensible

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 1 14:13:15 UTC 2009

Mass Asian language program is not sensible

Luke Slattery | July 01, 2009
Article from:  The Australian

TO raise serious doubts about the mass Asian language scheme proposed
by Kevin Rudd and Michael Wesley, I need demonstrate only two things:
first, that the inherent difficulty of character-based languages at
the heart of this vision - Chinese-Mandarin and Japanese - is a
genuine barrier to broad-based linguistic competency; and, second,
that the commercial case for these languages is much diminished by the
extent of English language learning in our region. Let's take the
degree of difficulty question first.

The US Defence Language Institute in Monterey, California, estimates
that it takes three times as many hours of instruction for a student
of Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic and Korean to reach the same level of
proficiency as students of Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French
with the same exposure; in other words, it is roughly three times more

Offers David Moser from the University ofMichigan's Centre for Chinese
Studies: "Itis simply unreasonably hard to learn enough (Chinese)
characters to become functionally literate." This is not to say that
these languages present insuperable barriers to all English speakers;
Rudd, with hundreds of extra hours of taxpayer-funded tuition, has
managed to shine. But it does suggest, at the least, that the
country's broad educational needs will be better served by more
pragmatic linguistic options with ancillary benefits: Indonesian, for
example, has unmatched strategic importance; romance languages have
deep cultural and intellectual resonance.

I have never argued against Asian language tuition in itself. But I
don't think a mass Asian language program inducting millions of
students from kindergarten to year 12 into the tonal and
character-oriented challenges of Mandarin is smart language policy.
What is more, it is driven by an outdated sense of the overriding
importance of region when globalism is fast eroding the constraints of
geography. Now to the question of English in our region. An estimated
176.7 million Chinese were studying English in 2005, making China the
second largest English-speaking nation after the US. China, according
to respected British linguist David Graddol, produces 20million
English speakers each year. The language is compulsory in Chinese
primary schools from grade three, and from grade one in Beijing and
Shanghai. Indeed, Graddol predicts that within a few years there will
be more English speakers in China than India. Take them together, and
include the Anglophone economic dynamos Singapore and Malaysia, and
you have the makings of an English-speaking economic area. These
figures seriously diminish the persuasive power of the case for a mass
Asian language program based primarily on mercantile values.

Given the pedagogical difficulties these languages inherently possess,
the commercial imperative has to be strong enough to overcome the
impediments. But it is weak and getting weaker. The source of this
dispute between the Asian language advocates and me can be easily
distilled. I would like to see a more linguistically competent
Australia - in fact, a multilingual Australia - and so look towards a
language policy that will efficiently deliver language skills and an
enthusiasm for further language study. For English speakers the most
effective starter, or apprentice languages, are those of the romance
family, together with German. (The latter shares a great deal of
vocabulary with English.)

It is nonsense to suggest that European languages have a diminished
importance given the economic strength of the euro zone (our biggest
trading partner) and the intensity of intellectual, scholarly and
human traffic (tourism) between Australia and Europe. And it's no kind
of argument to suggest, as Wesley does, that Mandarin is more useful
than Italian. I exercise my Italian when I travel, when I research,
when I go to the opera (rarely), the movies (regularly), and on trips
to Ranieri's, the local deli. Now and then it also throws a light on
my knowledge of English etymology, something that could never be
claimed for Chinese or Japanese.

I would very much like to learn Mandarin but cannot imagine a scenario
in which I would benefit economically from it. The Chinese rulers by
and large want our coal, not our conversation.

My perspective, I concede, is partly informed by trepidation. I am
wary of the failures of the Asian language initiatives in Rudd's home
state, Queensland. I was an education reporter in the years when
Queensland, under the direction of Rudd and Wayne Goss, began
replacing European languages with Japanese. It now has the worst
language participation rates in Australia. Less than 13 per cent of
Australian students take a second language in year 12, but that figure
drops to 5 per cent in Queensland.

Meanwhile, at the national level, the Asian languages program launched
by Paul Keating and crafted by Rudd failed to meet its own
participation targets.

Wesley wants to see 50 per cent of all Australians with competency in
an Asian language. He scorns my degree-of-difficulty argument against
a mass Chinese and Japanese language program, saying that it is the
equivalent of not teaching advanced mathematics because it is too
hard. His argument is incoherent. In fact only a small minority of
school students take advanced mathematics. We do not teach advanced
mathematics en masse to several million school students for the same
reason that we would be unwise to mandate or in any way require
millions of students to learn Mandarin or Japanese.

Wesley also seems to think that the US National Security Language
Initiative offers some comparison to his proposed mass Asian languages
program. It offers no such thing. Launched by former president George
W. Bush after September 11, the NSLI does not target mostly Asian
languages, as Wesley contends, but a grouping of Arabic, Hindi,
Chinese, Turkish, Farsi, and Russian. The student numbers are small.

The funding, too; despite its immense wealth the US Government is
investing a mere $114 million in this project. Compare this with
Wesley's call for $11.3 billion to establish Asian languages in
Australian schools and you get some idea of the different scale of his
ambitions for a much smaller population.

Where the NSLI is heterogenous, the Australian idea is narrow and
region-specific. The Americans are more focused on study abroad and
the development of a cadre of experts. Where the American plan is
strategic, our plan issues from a big-picture coloured by a degree of

That Wesley even thinks the two programs are comparable suggests his
vision has occluded his reason. In a similarly muddled vein, he
suggests I used the word "Asianise", a term I manifestly did not use.

In this debate - a vital one for the nation's future place in the
world - we need a little less fantasy and a little more clarity.

Luke Slattery is editor of the HES.


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