Notes from Symposium on Language Education in the Asia-Pacific Region

I attended a symposium last week at my university on language education in the Asia-Pacific region. It was very interesting and fascinating and left me wanting to learn every Asian language and visit every Asian country. I also attended the new postgraduate student induction and have been finishing up the final revisions on my research proposal. Next week I’m off to Canberra for a conference (and a little sightseeing!) so I probably won’t post again until I return.

Some notes I took at the symposium:

  • English is the official working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – all of which have English as an integral part of their primary curriculum. Quite a difference from the European Union with 27 member states and 23 official languages!
  • A common myth about second language learning is that a student’s native/home language will hinder acquisition of the second language and that starting to learn a language as early as possible is always better. In fact, using the child’s home language to teach core concepts such as math and science and introducing the second language (such as English) later yields better results. In North American contexts, students take about 5-7 years to learn English well enough in order to learn other subjects through English. In non-Anglophone contexts (such as Asia or Africa), it takes longer – usually 8 years. English Only movements such as those that restrict usage of Spanish in the US or Aboriginal languages in Australia are not supported by linguistic research. Using one’s native language helps in the acquisition of a second language, especially at a young age.
  • The closing of the second day of the symposium brought up questions that perhaps we don’t have the answers to (at least, not yet). For example, is motivation the real issue? Low levels of language study in Australia (and the US) have been a problem for a while, but is it really a lack of motivation by the students or is it more related to educational structures? The foreign language budget is often cut and classes cancelled to make room for more “important” subjects, while at the same time governments continue to stress how vital knowledge of languages is for students’ futures. It should also be noted that the motivation for teaching languages is very different (usually economic or political) from the motivation for learning languages (usually humanistic). Even if there is a lot of teaching of a language in schools (such as English in Asia), is there learning? Are schools the best places to be educated?

If you’re interested in the Asia-Pacific region, the Asia Education Foundation website provides information about Asia literacy in Australian schools.

In December, I’ll start posting about my actual PhD research and the wonderful world of vocabulary acquisition and lexical variation!

  • Thanks for this post.
    I had no idea that English was the official working language in this region, but now that I think about it, it does make sense.

    Look forward to hearing about your PhD research.


  • I am a big fan of Asian languages too. I can speak Japanese fluently, and I am currently learning Chinese. What excities about learning Asian langauges is the unique culture behind each langauge. Lots to explore and learn from.

  • That South-East Asian region is very interesting. The amount of cultural layering there is somewhat mind boggling. Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Confucian, Christian, native/animist/tribal, plus all the centuries of migration, conquest, trade. To tell you the truth, I don’t think that they themselves have even wrapped their minds around it all!

  • Japanese is one of the most spoken languages in the world. Whether you are learning Japanese for business or for pleasure, speaking Japanese can open many doors. There is no risk.

  • Learning a language is an advantage for us to communicate people if we go to the other country which we chose to visit.

  • Interesting article, I’m Indonesian and I started learning English in the first grade of elementary school. We study a lot of subjects at school, including English and they’re all compulsory! English is very important here, there’s national examinations like «le bac» here, in Junior High School there are 4 subjects tested like Indonesian language, English language, Mathematics and Sciences (Biology and Physics). If you fail one of these subjects, you won’t get your diploma. It’s no different in High School, English is the most important subject! And if you want to study in ”Top” universities like UI, UGM, UNAIR etc, you have to take TOEFL test to prove your proficiency (even though it’s unlikely that the lectures will ever be conducted in English at all).