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Australians falling behind in Asian language education

Meld Magazine

Wed Feb 15 2012


WE’VE gone from crisis to disaster.

Professor Tim Lindsey is blunt when describing the state of the study of Asian languages in Australia. He believes the failure to come even close to reaching Australian Government targets will endanger the nation’s lucrative Asian education market.

The chair of the Australia-Indonesia Institute and the director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne, Professor Lindsey, speaking to Meld in a personal capacity, said the disinterest in learning Asian languages and failure to properly invest in their study shows a dangerous “naivety” of Asia.

“Asian countries are overwhelmingly our largest trade partners (and) we are engaged in a state of ignorance.”

“It is a matter of national survival.”

Lindsey’s comments come after leading accountancy body CPA Australia called for Asian languages to be compulsory for all students from prep to Year 12.

Such calls have been criticised by Institute of Public Affairs researcher Chris Berg, who has said growth in engagement with Asia would be best encouraged through increased permanent migration, rather than a focus on what languages our students speak.

While the consequences of a decline in language study are disputed, the drop in student numbers, particularly those learning as a second-language, is clear for all to see.

An Australian Government-commissioned report released in mid-2010 revealed that the number of school students at all levels studying a language had decreased by more than 100,000 between 2000 and 2008. Prepared by the Asia Education Foundation, the report, titled the Current State of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean Language Education in Australian Schools, indicated that the proportion of students at all levels studying one of the four key Asian languages had dropped from 24 per cent to 18.6 percent.

On Indonesian, for instance, the report stated there had been a decline of 10,000 students a year since 2005, making it an “at-risk language at senior secondary schools”. Amazingly, given Australia’s population growth and the increased government interest in Asia, there were more Australian students studying Indonesian in the 1970s than now, Professor Lindsey said.

The decline in Japanese has been slower but is also serious. Between 2000 and 2008, the report described a 21 per cent decline in primary enrolments, and a 16.6 per cent drop in those studying it as a second language in Year 12. Korean meanwhile is “all but gone from the education system”, although this is not a new development.

Growth in the Mandarin figures bucks the trend, boosting the average of the four languages. At the all crucial Year 12, there were 5,256 students enrolled in 2008. This equates to 45 per cent of the students at that level studying one of the four languages, which are promoted as part of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP). But this Mandarin growth hides the fact that the large majority of these students are from a Chinese ethnic background – CPA Australia estimates only 300 Year 12 students are learning Chinese as a second language annually.

On 2008 figures, there would need to be a 100 per cent increase in Year 12 language enrolments to try to meet the NALSSP aim of 12 per cent of Australian students graduating with fluency in one of the Asian languages by 2020. This looks very unlikely.

Professor Lindsey said it was time for some “social engineering” through language policy to occur, and hoped the Asian Century white paper due for release mid-year would call for a massive increase in funding for languages in schools and universities.

“We are the OECD country with the lowest level of second-country language skills”, he said.

“If the government throws $35 million at it, it will achieve nothing [and] our capacity to deal with [Asia] on our terms will suffer.”

One of Lindsey’s leading fears is the decline of our international education exports, worth $18 billion in 2009 according to a report prepared for the Australian Technology Network of Universities.

“Australia’s third biggest export is education, largely to the Asian market,” Professor Lindsey said.

“You can’t expect Asia to send their students to a country which is increasingly less understanding of them,” he said.

“Australia is educating Asia, but not investing in it… [and] as Asian universities increase their quality and sophistication, our market will decline.”

The IPA’s Chris Berg acknowledged the benefits of more Australians speaking the languages of our leading trade partners, but said the focus on Asian languages was unnecessary.

“You can have a deeper relationship if you speak the language,” Mr Berg said.

“[But] it is quite wrong to say if Anglo-Australians don’t learn Chinese that we will be without Asian skills.”

Last month Berg wrote in The Sunday Age that English’s status as the global language meant a government-backed Asian language push was unwarranted.

“English’s dominance is something to be celebrated, not regretted. And the education curriculum is already stuffed full. Choices have to be made. If governments want to give every student an advantage in business, perhaps basic statistics and accountancy would be more helpful,” he said.

CPA Australia’s checklist for this year’s federal budget seeks the establishment of a free-to-air television channel dedicated to Asian news and culture, and more integration of Asian history and culture into Australian curriculum, in addition to the mandatory language push.

CPA’s chief executive Alex Malley said the relationship with Asia must be based on broad mutual understanding and respect.

“Even in today’s wireless and virtual world, ongoing business success ultimately rests on personal interaction and nowhere is this more relevant than in an Asian context.”

Tim Lindsey does not believe all Australian students should be forced to study Asian languages, but rather exposure to them should be mandatory.

“We can’t rely on the immigration system,” he said.

“Yes, many Asians are learning English, but most are not. In Indonesia and China, it is just not spoken fluently outside one or two cities.”

The Professor said a free-to-air TV channel wouldn’t make much difference, given the likely low number of viewers. Chris Berg said that subscription TV rather than public funds should be the source of any new channel.

Professor Lindsey, who was a member of the reference group for the four-year NALSSP project now ending, said greater study of Asian history, culture and politics could occur in Australian schools, at the same time as students learnt about liberal democracy and Western history.

Chris Berg supported Asian studies in the curriculum, although he said western civilisations were not taught well to children.

“It is important they learn about western civilisations and the origins of liberal democracy first, [and] they’re not getting that at the moment,” Mr Berg said.

Professor Lindsey supported his push for greater government investment in Asian education by pointing to continuing poor attitudes towards the region. The latest Lowy Poll on Australians’ attitudes to foreign policy issues found that a majority of respondents believed Australia was right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat, and had lukewarm feelings to its closest neighbour and China.

Putting in place measures to reverse the language decline would be expensive, Professor Lindsey said.

“[But] minor policy changes won’t do anything,” he said.

“If it is steady as we go, we will pay for it.”

Do you think more Australians should learn Asian languages? Will a failure to do so disadvantage Australia?