[lg policy] The lost decade: learning Asian languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 30 15:11:43 UTC 2011

The lost decade: learning Asian languages

163 Comments <http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3702656.html#comments>

Greg Jericho <http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/greg-jericho-56616.html>

On the weekend, Julie Bishop appeared on Sky News and among other things
talked about education policy.

As someone who has not always been Julie Bishop's biggest
it was rather intriguing to find myself nodding as she put forward the idea
that the teaching of Asian languages be made

This desire for Asian language education is a rather interesting position
for a member of the Liberal Party to take – especially a former education
minister under John Howard – as it was the Howard government in 2002 (when
Brendan Nelson was education minister) that cancelled the funding for the
National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (known
in the language most favoured by bureaucrats in the public service –
Acronymese – as NALSAS <http://www1.curriculum.edu.au/nalsas/about.htm>).

Kevin Rudd at the time was a newish foreign affairs shadow minister, but he
was a long-time proponent of Asian language education. He also had a pretty
close interest in NALSAS as the strategy was developed in 1994 on the back
of the Council of Australian Governments Working Group on Asian Languages
and Cultures report, "Asian Languages and Australia's Economic Future".
Rudd, then working for the Goss government in Queensland, was the
that report.

When Nelson scrapped NALSAS, Rudd's
not exactly to take a Bex and have a lie down. He wrote Nelson a
letter, the contents of which, rather nicely for us, found their way into
the hands of Alan Ramsey at the Sydney Morning
Here's a taste:

*Dear Brendan,*

*The single most appalling thing you have done in Australian public life is
your decision to cease funding the National Asian Languages and Studies
Strategy for Australian Schools (NALSAS). If you read my October 9 speech,
you will see I accuse you of political cowardice for not standing up to
Peter Costello to obtain the $120 million necessary to fund the
Commonwealth's contribution for a further quadrennium (2003-06). If you
read the speech you will see I contrast your cowardice with what I describe
as your predecessor's statesmanship.*

*It was agreed as a 50/50 Commonwealth/state program until 2006, when it
would be reviewed. Then you came along. And because you didn't have the
guts to stand up to Peter Costello during the last budget round, your
decision to cease funding this program [from January 1] after eight years
now leaves 750,000 school students studying these languages completely in
the lurch. Well done, Brendan.*

I wonder if Rudd recalled that letter when he appointed Nelson as
ambassador to the European Communities…

In the first budget<http://www.budget.gov.au/2008-09/content/bp2/html/expense-09.htm>under
the Rudd government the program was somewhat returned, but now
rebadged as the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program
(which is a rather less easy Acronymese of
It was funded to the tune of $62.4 million over four years. The more
observant among you might note how in 2002 Rudd was full of Sturm und Drang
over Nelson's inability to convince Costello to find $120 million over four
years to fund NALSAP, but was himself only able to convince Wayne Swan to
cough up half that amount for the new version of the program.

C'est la vie, I guess.

Nevertheless, lack of funding notwithstanding, the NALSSP had lofty goals
among them that:

*By 2020, at least 12 per cent of students will exit Year 12 with a fluency
in one of the target Asian languages sufficient for engaging in trade and
commerce in Asia and/or university study.*

So how are things going?

Not too well, actually.

A report <http://www.deewr.gov.au/Schooling/NALSSP/Pages/Resources.aspx>released
in May last year on "the Current State of Chinese, Indonesian,
Japanese and Korean Language Education in Australian Schools" by the Asian
Education Foundation at the University of Melbourne found that with regard
to the aspirational target of 12 per cent fluent in one Asian language:

*Australian Bureau of Statistics data (2008) shows that around 197,500
students are forecasted to be in Year 12 in 2020. Meeting the NALSSP's
target will therefore require at least 24,000 students to be studying one
of the four languages in 2020, up from the 11,654 students reported to have
completed study of the languages in Year 12 in 2008. This equates to a 100
per cent increase in student numbers but does not address the issue of how
many of these students achieve fluency.*

The issue of fluency is given some fairly stunning context in the report
when it states with respect to Chinese:

*Over the period of their secondary schooling, Australian language students
receive, at best, some 500 hours of instruction. The Foreign Service
Institute in Washington DC estimates that it takes an English speaker
approximately 2,200 hours to become proficient in Chinese (compared with
600 hours for French). Chinese as a Second Language at Year 12 requires
mastery of some 500 characters, a number reached in China, Hong Kong and
Taiwan in Grade 1 primary.*

Being able to speak as well as a Grade One Chinese student is hardly

Now, this report does not comment on the Rudd government-initiated program
because that only started in 2008; more it is a commentary on how things
went post 2002 and the cancelling of the NALSAS.

A review of numbers of students studying each of the four targeted
languages shows what happens when you cancel funding to a program:

>>From 1994 when the Keating government introduced NALSAS till 2000, two
years prior to the Howard government cutting it, the numbers of students
studying Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese were increasing at startling
levels. By 2008, six years after the end of the program, the numbers of
students studying Japanese, Indonesian and Korean have all fallen. Only the
numbers of students studying Chinese has increased but by less than it had
from 1994 to 2000, which is surprising given in the past eight years China
has received greater general media attention due to the mining booms and
thus you would expect its growth to remain strong.

Those who wish to argue that you can cut funding to education and not see a
degradation in outcomes would do well to ponder the above graph a while.
They might also ponder whether they think Australia's national interests
are better served by the situation we found ourselves in 2008 or where it
was in 2000.

The graph displays rather clearly how talking about solving the "skills
crisis" is a long-term affair. Even if we were to assume that the NALSSP
were to achieve the growth by the end of this year in Indonesian that was
achieved under the old NALSAS from 1997 to 2000, we would still find
ourselves with slightly less students studying that language than was the
case 11 years ago.

A decade lost. That is a pretty stark example of the cost of a Federal
Government not placing appropriate emphasis on skills.

Remember as well that an increase in numbers does not mean an increase in
fluent speakers because you don't start studying a second language in Year
11 or Year 12. Even if you study the language only in high school (as was
the case when I back in the 1980s studied German), an increase in numbers
this year will only lead to an increase in fluent (or at least Year 12
standard) speakers in five years time.

Which brings us back to Julie Bishop and her proposal to make Asian
language education mandatory.

There are a number of issues with foreign language education in this
country. Surprisingly it is not only about supply of teachers – in some
states there is an abundance of supply of Chinese speaking teachers, in
others a deficit; the supply of Japanese teachers meets demand in urban
areas although "the quality of available teachers is mixed". The Asian
Education Foundation also found that with respect to Indonesian, "Reports
of both oversupply and undersupply lead to major uncertainties about
current teacher supply issues".

But while supply is an issue, so too is demand. Getting students to study
an Asian language in the first place is crucial. If you look at the chart
of numbers studying Japanese you can see the decline in numbers from Year
8. While efforts need to also be made to the teaching of the subject to
make them more attractive to students, the reality is that to increase the
number of Year 12 students studying a language you need to increase the
numbers of students beginning to study the language in earlier years.

In Chinese for example, 94 per cent of those learning it as a second
language (as opposed to those for whom it is their first language) drop out
before Year 12.

The report found that such students drop the language because of three

   - the presence of strong numbers of first-language speakers, locally
   born or otherwise, who share their classes and have an advantage in
   - their lack of success in developing proficiency… combined with
   insufficient teaching of certain aspects, and a totally inadequate
   provision of time needed for the task;
   - often they attempt to learn the language in an environment at school,
   in their family, and in the community, that is less than optimum.

One of the recommendations of the report on this issue was:

*Better pathways for language study between primary and secondary
schooling, and from junior, middle to the senior years of secondary school,
are essential if the pattern of participation at Year 12 is to change.
These must be both visible and attractive to students – and publicly valued
by the school and the Australian community.*

The report also called for "National leadership".

Part of this leadership was displayed last week when Peter Garrett, the
Minister for School Education
next stage of the National Curriculum which calls for all Australian
students to be "entitled to learn a language other than English… with
curriculum for Chinese Mandarin and Italian the first to be developed".

A curriculum for Mandarin and Italian is the first to be developed because,
as the draft paper on languages in the National Curriculum

*They represent languages that cater for the greatest range of learners.
Chinese is also a national priority, and Italian is learnt by the largest
number of students in the primary years and the second largest number of
student enrolments overall.*

The curriculum is also to take into account the differences in proficiency
of first-language speakers and English-speaking learners.

In effect the curriculum is an attempt to provide better pathways for each
language study.

The next stage will be the development of curricula for French, German,
Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. (Note this does not mean the
Government is suggesting Mandarin and Italian are only to be studied,
rather they will be the first to come under a national curriculum – in the
event that the states ever agree to it!)

So the Government is suggesting that learning a second language be
available to all; Julie Bishop wants to make learning an Asian language
mandatory for all.

Given the shocking decline in numbers of students studying Asian languages,
and the importance of Asia to Australia's future, I think Bishop's call for
positive discrimination in the teaching of Asian languages is one worth
considering. When you mandate the study of an Asian language you certainly
take care of the issue of demand of students studying it – if in a pretty
heavy handed way.

However, as soon as you mandate such education, you need to be able to meet
the expectations of Australians that the quality of that education will be
similar regardless of where you live. If the current supply and standard of
Asian language teachers is not able to meet such an expectation now, it is
even less likely to be able to do so if the numbers of students being
taught those languages suddenly increases.

Mandating that students learn an Asian language is perhaps a long-term goal
– but unless we plan on mainly employing foreign language teachers to teach
the subject, we will need to encourage students now to learn the language
so that they can go to university, study the language, and thus become
teachers who can teach more students.

It is a long process, but the encouragement of Asian language learning is
one worth pursuing unless anyone expects Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea
as a whole to get less relevant to Australia in the next 100 years.
Programs like the recently announced "Parents Understanding Asian
which is "designed to build capacity in parents to influence students and
schools to give priority to programs on Asian languages and studies" may
assist generating the demand for Asian languages that has declined in the
past decade without the need for mandating their study.

It is however heartening to finally see some return to bipartisanship
regarding the importance of this policy after nearly a decade. We should
note, however, that this is not formal Liberal Party policy, merely Julie
Bishop stating an opinion in an interview. Whether it will lead to greater
funding and better outcomes remains to be seen and, as is the case with
most skills policies, the outcomes (good or bad) will only be measurable in
the medium to long term.

But we cannot afford another lost decade.

If nothing else, an increase in students studying Asian languages may help
improve Australians' overall attitudes towards Asia. The recent Lowy
Institute Poll <http://www.lowyinstitute.org/Publication.asp?pid=1617>found
Australians' attitudes towards China and Indonesia was barely in the

Learning a country's language also involves learning the customs of that
country. With better understanding of another person's culture comes better
engagement and less conflict. If Australia truly wants to be part of the "Asian
this will be a very good and very necessary thing.

*Greg Jericho* <http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/greg-jericho-56616.html>*is
an amateur blogger who spends too much of his spare time writing about
politics and not enough time watching all the DVDs he buys each weekend.
His blog can be found here <http://grogsgamut.blogspot.com/>.*

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