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!)