Australia in the Asian Century: Focus on Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian and Hindi

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper was just released on Sunday, and it contains 25 major goals for Australia, some of which pertain to language learning. Essentially, the paper states that every Australian student (in primary or secondary schools) will have the opportunity to learn one of the four priority Asian languages: Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian and Hindi. In addition, all students will leave school with a knowledge of Asian cultures. You can read the White Paper at the government’s Asian Century site as well as a response to it by the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations. A few other articles include:

Gillard: Australia must embrace ‘Asian Century’

Questions over white paper implementation

Australia’s Asian Literacy in the Asian Century

That last article by William Steed pretty much sums up everything I have to say about this paper. I’m glad the government is actively promoting learning languages and using technology to do so (with the National Broadband Network), but this is mostly a continuation of what previous governments have been encouraging for years. The switch from a focus on Korean to Hindi is a tiny bit surprising, and will probably require the most work to implement. Of course I am most interested in where the teachers for these languages will come from. Many universities have already shut down Indonesian programs because of a lack of interest, so how are we supposed to train students to become language teachers if they can’t even learn languages at university? And as a speaker/teacher of a European language, I wonder what this means for other non-Asian languages.

My university currently offers classes in French, Italian and Japanese, though students can take other languages such as Mandarin, Spanish, German and Indonesian cross-institutionally. Japanese and French have the highest enrollments, and almost all of the students in my class said they chose French because it is a global language and would be more useful in their future careers. So while I am happy that the government encourages language learning, I feel that focusing on Asian languages only is not necessarily the way to go about it. There are many other languages spoken in Australia, and students have many reasons for learning foreign languages, which include living abroad. Not every student is going to stay and work in Australia. I had a similar feeling in the US where Spanish is promoted as THE language to learn, and sometimes it is the only language offered. I knew that I wanted to leave the US and that Spanish would not be as useful to me as French. If I had been forced to take Spanish classes instead of being offered a choice of which language to learn, I don’t think I would have had much motivation.

And indeed, the motivation to learn a language is probably the most important aspect of language acquisition. If you have no interest in a language or its culture, you will not learn very much or very well. Motivation often comes from an appreciation and/or love of the culture, not the actual language itself. Future career or travel goals are also major factors. I’ve actually switched from a focus on Italian and German to Spanish (oh how ironic!) and Dutch/Afrikaans because I plan to travel to places where those languages are spoken within the next few years. Although there are some Italian and German speakers here in South Australia, I have slightly less motivation to study those languages because I know I will not be returning to Europe anytime soon.

Obviously I did not grow up in Australia or go to school here, but from what I’ve heard from teenagers who are thinking about going to university, languages are not valued or encouraged enough in the school system. Students said the classes were too hard or too boring, or they simply didn’t think they would ever need another language while living in Australia. And of course, only spending a few hours a week for maybe three years in no way guarantees that students will become proficient in the language. By the time they enter university, they have bad memories of language classes and choose not to take them anymore, especially when it is difficult to add elective classes to their timetables. And since there is no foreign language requirement in order to obtain a Bachelor’s degree (not that I agree with required classes anyway…), very few students end up taking a language at university, and far fewer actually become fluent.

In a perfect world, all languages would be offered so students would have the choice of which language(s) to learn. This is possible with online classes and I am eager to see how or if the NBN will change teaching in Australia. Of course, the way we teach languages needs to change as well, but that’s another blog post (or thesis!)

  • AMB

    I live in Victoria and the school I went to only offered Indonesian as a compulsory subject from year 7-9. I really wanted to learn a European Language as I find the cultures and sounds a lot more interesting and majority of students (including myself) felt that Indonesian was rather useless unless you planned to do something specific with it…they said they taught it to us partly because Indonesia is a close neighbour…Well I still have no plans to travel to Indonesia.

    Ironically near the end of my high school my interest in languages has picked up a lot and I’ve started French at university and I wouldn’t mind so much learning about Indonesian now, however it’s still not in my list of languages I would like to learn.

    • Thanks for your comment! I have heard that sometimes Indonesian is the only language offered at schools and since one language is required, students don’t have a choice in which language to learn. This usually ends up turning students off of languages for the rest of their lives. :/ Students should have the choice to learn whichever language they want, not have one forced on them.

  • Great post, Jennie. I was going to write an epic comment in response, but ended up writing a blog post on my blog instead! I hope it’s alright if I leave the link here:

    Anyway, a quick question: how are you going about learning Spanish and Dutch/Afrikaans? Are you doing a class or learning on your own?

    I’ve recently started learning Afrikaans, so I’m glad to see I’m not the only one! Good luck with your learning 🙂

  • I agree with you, you have to make language-learning fun and interesting, you have to give them a reason to do it. Until you do that, you will fail, and you see this exemplified in required courses (completely agree with you that they’re counterproductive) where the students, most of whom don’t want to be there, simply do the bare minimum they have to in order to get the grade they want, they just memorize and regurgitate, and then promptly forget it all as soon as they’re done with the course. And I completely agree with their methods, I’d do (and did, in university and high school) precisely the same thing with courses I wasn’t interested in but had to take.

    I’m not even sure exactly how to go about doing this (motivating students), though I have some vague ideas, I just know it’s the only way you’re really going to be successful in getting people to truly learn something–they have to want to do it, you can’t “make” them.

    How’s your Spanish coming, is there anything I can do?


    • Getting students to want to learn languages is the biggest obstacle. They have to be shown the advantages of being bilingual (not just communicating with other people, but also the cognitive benefits) and how they can use the language(s) in their daily lives and/or future careers. So what if Indonesia is our closest neighbor? What does that mean for learning/using Indonesian in Australia? The government and curriculum really don’t say anything about that and they certainly don’t give specific examples, which is a shame. So far they’ve just talked about what students need with no regard to what students want. I seriously wonder if they even ask students about it and get feedback from them…

      Spanish is going well. I’m still watching Betty la fea all the time, though I find that the Mexican accent is easier for me to understand rather than the Colombian accent. I wish Univision and Telesur had subtitles for their videos!! Can you do something about that? 🙂

  • Ironically None of these languages are popular in Australia. Like I said in my tweet on the CNN article Let market demand not government regulation decide which languages to study.

    • Mandarin is becoming slightly more popular, but it is still not as popular as French. I definitely agree that the government shouldn’t try to enforce which language students should learn. Let the students decide on their own.

  • Thanks for the link to your blog! I’m learning on my own. I actually started taking a Dutch class at the local adult ed center here a few months ago, but it was too slow and too easy for someone who already speaks another language so I quit going. It’s hard finding resources for Afrikaans! And I would love to find a site or book that teaches Dutch and Afrikaans together, but no luck so far.

  • Samantha

    Nice post Jennie! I also ended up having a lot to say about topic on my blog 🙂 I’ve always liked that European and Asian languages are common to learn in Australia, I hope it stay that way!

  • I was hoping to hear from Australians on their language learning experiences in school. Thanks for posting about it too! 🙂

    • Samantha

      No worries 🙂 I put a little poll at the bottom of my post, and I’ve had about 20 responses as to why people pick a certain foreign language to study – so far, no one has picked the ‘geographically convenient’ option, such as learning Spanish if you live in the states or Indonesian if you live in Australia. It supports my theory that people often don’t become fluent in language because they feel they ‘should’ learn them but because they want to, or have the desire to learn them 🙂

  • Annie

    Hi there, another Australian with an opinion!

    i went to a primary school in Victoria where Italian and Mandarin Chinese were the only languages offered. Later, when i switched primary schools, it was only French. My high school offered a range of languages including Indonesian, Mandarin, Japanese, French, German, Latin and so forth. The reason why the school offered a breadth of languages was because of our close ties with schools in both Asia and Europe which enabled students from both countries to undertake exchanges.

    In my own opinion, i think the point of the White Paper is not to force students to take up an Asian language, but rather give them an opportunity to focus on our asian neighbours and learn more about Asian culture. Many schools only offer one European language and generally its always French, therefore students don’t have the opportunity to explore the Asian culture at all. Throughout my entire schooling, i noticed there were heavy emphasis on American and European history but no so much on Asian history. Therefore the White Paper aims to build upon and strengthen the Asian ties to ensure a stable and prosperous relationship with our neighbours, both in a cultural and economic sense.

    No one is forcing a student to learn an Asian language. I think the better way of doing this would be to offer both Asian and European languages at the same time. No matter what language a student picks, they won’t be missing out, I can’t think of any disadvantages learning a language at all. I took Mandarin Chinese for VCE and French until year 9 and only in university did I regret not carrying on a language because I realised how important it is in today’s society.

    I think most Australians underestimate the relationship with Asia, our main trading partners are located in Asia, our education system relies heavily on international students- in particular from Asia and many Asians migrate to Australia because of the more accepting culture down here. My personal opinion is that the Asian and Western cultures are both very different and it is very hard to conduct business in an Asia if you don’t understand the culture.

    If today’s students have the opportunity to learn about Asia and the world, then I can’t really fault the government in trying to implement this paper. Obviously, there will be problems the government will face in implementing the paper, but in theory, it does sound like a good plan. We live in a society where international boundaries exist no more and the i think the White Paper is a step in the right direction granted it expands upon the language program and doesn’t actually wipe out other European languages.

    PS Sorry for the essay!

    PPS Great job on the website! I’ve only just discovered your blog (the day before my uni exams…probably the worst timing ever because i can’t stop reading!!!) but I feel inspired to head out and start learning French and Mandarin again!

    • Samantha

      WOW – I went to school in Victoria but and I’m really jealous that you’re high school offered so many languages! In my town most high schools offered two foreign languages, an Asian and a European one. I used to think that all schools in australia were like this, but Im realising this is defitniely not the case. In some areas there are simply no teachers with the ability to teach a language at high school level, one of my friends who grew up in a small country town said her primary school didn’t teach her any foreign languages simply because there were no teachers for it.

      It’s a shame that there’s so much inconsistancy with language learning in Australian schools, you could be in a school that teaches a range of European and Asian languages, a school that only teaches Asian or European languages or a school that doesn’t offer them at all – it can really be a matter of luck.

  • kontext

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  • LB

    As an Australian myself I find the whole language situation in school frustrating. When I was in my junior years of high school, I enjoyed both Italian and Japanese as we were forced to do a semester of each and then choose which one we wanted to do another year of. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to continue with both languages which really annoyed me as I continues Italian all the way through and now at university, I am studying Advanced Italian but I need to start from the very beginning in the other languages I wish to pursue. So if they really want people to learn these languages, they should allow students who have the aptitude and motivation to learn more than one language co-currently.

    I also strongly believe that Australians just do not care for learning Asian languages and they are more than content with knowing just English. I’ll never understand why. My life has become so language orientated. I can’t get enough.
    I am not really sure what paper released is going to do to the language curriculum in Australian schools but I think it would be a real shame to neglect European languages, because personally that was where my real passion lay. Regardless of geographical proximity, European languages will always play an huge role in Australian affairs.

    Love your work Jennie.