[lg policy] Australia: Minding our languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 8 16:39:14 UTC 2011

Minding our languages
Hugh White
November 8, 2011

Illustration: John Spooner

The countries of Asia are becoming more and more central to our future -
economically, politically, socially, strategically, culturally.

As Julia Gillard has said, this is the Asian century, and no country has
more at stake in it than Australia. The countries of Asia are becoming more
and more central to our future - economically, politically, socially,
strategically, culturally. But as Asia becomes increasingly important to
us, fewer Australians are learning about it. Nothing governments have tried
in recent years seems to make any difference. It is time for some fresh

This is not a new problem. The number of Australians learning Asian
languages and about Asian societies has been shrinking for years. The
teaching of key languages such as Japanese and Indonesian is in danger of
disappearing from secondary schools - the combined result of too few
students and too few teachers. And with only a tiny handful of exceptions,
the only students who learn Chinese at school are those of Chinese

The same thing is happening at universities. Asian languages are attracting
fewer and fewer students, and those they do attract have not studied an
Asian language at school, so their university courses start from scratch.
That means the standard most can reach in a three or four-year degree
program is pretty basic. In turn, that means the number of well- qualified
teachers going into the secondary system is falling, which drives down the
numbers who will start to learn Asian languages at school. A classic
vicious circle.
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Quite a lot of money has been spent trying to fix this problem. Back in his
days as a Queensland state official, Kevin Rudd played a big role in trying
to help the Keating government formulate a major national Asian language
policy, and when he became prime minister he launched a scheme to make
Australia the world's most ''Asia-literate'' society.

But it's not working. Two things seem to be getting in the way. First, the
cycle of falling language competence means that no matter how much money is
spent, there are too few teachers to expand language classes significantly.
Second, young Australians are not interested enough to commit themselves to
the sheer hard work of learning Asian languages.

Throwing more money at school and university language programs isn't going
to fix the problem. We need to do something different. So here is a
suggestion. Instead of trying to teach young Australians Asian languages
here in Australia, we should give them a chance to learn them in Asia.

The basic idea is perfectly simple. Instead of spending money on expensive
schemes to expand the teaching of Asian languages in Australia, we spend
the money on sending young Australians to live in Asia and learn a language
there. For example, someone wanting to study Indonesian would spend a year
in Indonesia. Those wanting to learn more complex languages such as Chinese
or Thai might go for two years.

The advantages are obvious. Students would learn from native-speaking
teachers, and would build real fluency from being immersed in the language
being spoken all around them. Simultaneously they would learn more than a
language. They would learn about a country, its people, its culture and its
outlook, and learn something important about Australia too, seeing it from
a distance.

Of course, quite a few young Australians do this kind of thing already,
often as part of a university course. But the total numbers who go and live
in an Asian country to study remains far too small to make any kind of a
dent in our growing Asian literacy deficit.

So the radical part of this idea is its scale. I'm suggesting that to
educate Australia for the Asian century, the government should fund a year
or two in Asia studying an Asian language for really large numbers of young
Australians. Let's start with a target of 10,000 a year. With those kinds
of numbers, Australia really would start to gain the depth and breadth of
Asian literacy we are going to need. And for many Australians, Asia will
become part of their life.

Sounds expensive? I'd estimate it might cost $25,000 to send a student to
live and study in Indonesia or China for a year. That would add up to $250
million a year for 10,000 students, or $375 million if half of them went
for two years.

That is a lot of money, but $375 million is less than 5 per cent of the $8
billion a year that Australia's rapidly growing overseas aid budget is
planned to reach over the next decade. This is where the money should be
found. We need to ask whether our future in Asia might be better secured by
spending a bit less on teaching our neighbours how to do things, and a bit
more on learning about them.

When would students do this? My guess is anywhere between the ages of 18
and 27. The key is flexibility. Many people might take a gap year between
school and post-secondary education, some might go during a university
degree, and some after they have finished. Needless to say, the scheme
would not be limited to those who are studying languages at university.

Indeed, the whole point would be that people with all kinds of backgrounds
and career trajectories would add fluency in an Asian language and
familiarity with an Asian country to their qualifications. Not just arts
graduates but engineers, doctors, accountants and IT specialists.

Many details remain to be worked out. Ideally, they would live and study
with students from their host country, so the best idea would be to
establish programs integrated into existing universities.

Julia Gillard has commissioned former Treasury head Ken Henry to produce a
white paper on how Australia can best secure its future in the Asian
century. We can be sure that Asian literacy will be one of the big issues
on their agenda. Perhaps they might want to keep this idea in mind.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and a visiting fellow
at the Lowy Institute.

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