[lg policy] The language education debate: Speak, and ye shall find knowledge

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Sep 9 14:28:03 UTC 2009

The language education debate: Speak, and ye shall find knowledge

Posted By Kent Anderson On 8 September 2009 @ 10:00 pm In Education

Author: Kent Anderson & Joseph Lo Bianco

Languages are back in the news. As part of the national curriculum
debate, English is one of the first cabs off the rank and Languages
Other Than English are following in the second group.  The National
Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program also adds limited
funding for the next three years to promoting four targeted languages.
Moreover, there is the slow burn of the crisis of language learning at
both secondary level, where a pitiful 12 per cent of students who
complete secondary schooling take languages in their final exams, and
at the tertiary level, where the number of languages taught has fallen
from 66 to less than 30 in the past decade.

This discourse is taking place against the backdrop of the financial
crisis, which only heightens how important languages are in our
rapidly and deeply globalised world, where the pension incomes of
Australians are tied to the economic fortunes of North Americans,
Asians and Europeans. This is what globalisation ultimately means:
international dependency of a depth that has never been experienced in
human history. When the economic and social fortunes of all countries
are so directly and closely tied to those of other countries a debate
about overcoming the all too real language education crisis in
Australia is very much to be welcomed.

However, the way the national conversation about languages is framed
is disappointing and ultimately futile. Australia has unique potential
as an Anglophone but multilingual country with European institutions
and traditions, at the edge of the fastest growing and most dynamic
part of the world, with Asian friends and neighbours. Few would
believe we have lived up to our national potential, which is only
available through a rich understanding of a multitude of languages.
Despite recent intensified interest in language education we are
concerned that today’s debates risk entrenching three fallacies. The
first is the ‘English will do’ fallacy.

The second is that we have to choose between Asia and Europe. The
third is that language education serves only a utilitarian purpose, a
fallacy which argues that we need foreign language skills exclusively
to serve the utilitarian purpose of promoting trade and international
political relations. Let us examine each of these misconceptions in
turn. Too many advocates of languages fear that recognition of the
unique and unparalleled importance of English in the world diminishes
the case for other languages.

We feel the complete opposite is true. The reality of the global
lingua franca role of English is undeniable. Recent estimates are that
close to one-third of the population of the world either knows or is
studying English. Australia has a vast benefit derived in English
medium education. To remove the native speaker advantage, countries in
Asia, Europe and the Americas whose national languages are not English
increasingly offer specialised business, technology and science
programs in English to compete in this promising market. So why is
this not bad news for other languages?

Because the millions of Chinese, Germans and Paraguayans who are
learning and using English to communicate with Bulgarians and
Americans alike are adding English to their Chinese, German and
Spanish. As they become bilingual, it is only native speakers of
English who remain monolingual. The disadvantage is reversed. While
not knowing English is a disadvantage, knowing only English is a
disadvantage too. The second fallacy is the categorical choice we are
often enjoined to make. Put aside Europe, we are part of Asia; or
reject Asia and cleave to Europe. The dichotomy is absurdly false.

Is the French and Spanish spoken throughout the Pacific an Asian or
European language; what about the Cantonese spoken in Canada? More
significant than the silliness of trying to apply Middle Aged typology
to a 21st century mobile world, we need national language capability
in both so-called Asian and European languages. Each particular
language has its distinctive needs. What Australia needs to do to
ensure a national language capability in Vietnamese and Hindi, Spanish
and German, is unique to each of those languages.

There is no Asian language category; even so-called character based
languages are radically different from each other. We must teach in
our schools and universities the key languages of Asia and the key
languages of Europe. We must also support languages that do not fit
neatly into secure geographic categorisations but which are important
for Australian national interests (Arabic, Russian, and world
languages such as Spanish).

Moreover, a humane and sophisticated languages policy sensitive to
national need must find ways to support Aboriginal and community
languages. We should have a policy that aims to conserve the
remarkable contribution that immigrant communities from all over the
world make to the nation. Of course we agree that our schools cannot
teach all languages, but students and communities provide these
programs in vast numbers. The final fallacy, and in some ways the
deepest and most troubling, is the almost exclusively utilitarian
approach to language learning that much of the recent discussion has
taken. Of course, the trade and security reasons for studying
languages are enormously important on a variety of levels, but
ultimately the reason students should learn and study languages is a
humanistic one.

First, we know that students may start a language for utilitarian
purposes, but the research also teaches that it is what language
brings beyond some potential future job that keeps students studying
until their language proficiency is functionally useful. Studying
languages allows our students to encounter human differences in their
most natural way and thereby to open themselves to an exploring and
understanding of the self based on learning about the other.

There will always be a need for short term and specialised niche
language teaching in particular languages, but the providers of this
kind of training can do so best on the basis of a successful
apprenticeship in bilingualism in schools. Ultimately this is why we
compel young Australians to be schooled. We want them to experience
rich, humanistic education that asks questions about the civilisations
of Europe and Asia, not to mention the Americas and Africa. A language
education policy that takes seriously the highest intellectual,
cultural and civilisational ideals of the great experiences of
humanity must be global, taking in both Asian and European and fusing
these together to help forge a uniquely Australian world literacy.

This article originally appeared here [1] in The Australian.

Kent Anderson is professor of Asian studies and law at the Australian
National University and director of the faculty of Asian studies.
Joseph Lo Bianco is professor of language and literacy education at
the University of Melbourne.


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