[lg policy] Australia: Language barrier we don't want to breach

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 9 15:28:18 UTC 2011

Language barrier we don't want to breach

    by: Andrew Carr
    From: The Australian
    November 09, 2011 12:00AM

EARLIER this year I signed up at the local TAFE to learn Indonesian. A
few days before the class began I received a phone call. My course had
been cancelled because of a lack of interest. In the nation's capital,
there was not the demand to run even one class teaching the language
of our nearest and most important neighbour.  My experience isn't
unique and it's part of one of the bigger puzzles of the past 30
years. Ever since Bob Hawke became prime minister, Australia's
engagement with Asia has been official policy. Our political elites
have advocated and cajoled Australians to take an interest in our

Yet, with the exception of widening the spots where we travel for
holiday, most Australians haven't really engaged with the
Asia-Pacific. This is most apparent when looking at the number of
Australians who learn a second language. A 2009 report found Australia
is one of the most monolingual developed nations in the world, with
more than three-quarters of Australians speaking only English.

The younger generation may be more comfortable with the idea of
Australia's Asian future, but they are no more willing to learn the
region's languages. This year's HSC exams in NSW will see a record low
level of students tested on their foreign language skills. The
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, our channel to the region,
takes in more graduates with French than with Mandarin and Indonesian

This problem is well known to the government. Indeed, we can expect
that it will feature prominently in Ken Henry's Australia in the Asian
Century white paper. If he follows past reports, we can expect a call
for significant government spending to encourage more teachers to host
more classes and to make it easier and cheaper for Australians to
learn an Asian language. However, the problem seems less with the
government's supply of language services than the public's demand for

The most obvious reason why few of us learn a second language,
particularly an Asian language, is that it doesn't pay. Australians
increasingly work in healthcare and retail, with construction, power
generation and transport all growing. These are sectors of the economy
that don't offer better jobs or higher salaries to those with foreign
language skills.

While it seems intuitive that those working in tourism or education
could benefit from a second language, Australia has enjoyed strong
growth in both sectors without needing extra language skills. Foreign
students need to demonstrate reasonable levels of English to get a
place here and most tourists learn, or want to learn, a bit of the
local language, reducing Australia's need.

It is this distance between our day-to-day work environment and the
rhetoric about Australia's future within Asia that has been the
defining experience for most of us. And when most parents see no
benefit for themselves from learning an Asian language we cannot be
surprised when they don't insist their children learn one either.

Another possible reason why Australians don't seem interested in
learning an Asian language is culture. NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell has
noted that large parts of his state are still essentially
monocultural. One of the reasons French and Spanish classes attract
some of us is the romantic appeal we attach to these languages and
cultures. Among Asian countries, only Japan seems to have broken
through with a similar appeal.

If Australians don't want to watch movies from Vietnam or read the
history of Indonesia, they will have no great interest in learning
these countries' languages. Australians with dreams of making it big
overseas almost always mean succeeding in the US or European markets,
not in Southeast Asia. However, as the market turmoil in the US and
Europe makes clear, Australia's prosperity depends on good links with

And not just sending more minerals to China. Australia's top export
markets include Japan, India and Korea while we import from Singapore
and Thailand. Yet these links have been built up by only a small part
of our business sector. In Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of
Australians holiday every year, less than 3000 Australian businesses
have a presence. Indeed, last year investment from Thailand in
Australia was more than double Australian investment in Thailand.

So how can we get Australians wanting to speak to and do business with
our region? A new program by the federal Department

of Education that seeks to turn parents into advocates for extra
language skills, rather than simply adding new classes, is a good
start. This is an attempt to stimulate demand for languages after a
policy focus on supply. If advocacy fails, maybe bribery could work.
Incentives for language have been piecemeal. Governments and
educational institutions across the country could agree on a long-term
package of enticements. These could include bonus tertiary entry marks
for language skills, higher Austudy payments for those doing
languages, or tax breaks for parents whose children learn a regional

Yet even measures such as these may not be enough without some
breakthrough in popular imagination. After 30 years of bipartisan
government advocacy of the importance of engagement with Asia,
Australians seem happy for our government to look north, but are
reluctant to do so themselves. As Paul Keating argued recently, the
biggest single challenge is to have Australia psychologically wish to
be part of the region around it. Until that changes the classrooms
will remain empty, however much the government wishes otherwise.

Andrew Carr is assistant editor of The Interpreter blog for the Lowy
Institute for International Policy


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