Thursday, June 10, 2010

Decline of Asian languages in Australia

The parlous state of Asian languages in Australian schools was well covered yesterday; see the 7.30 report, Bernard Lane in the Australia, while the Asia Education Web site carries the language reports that started the discussion.

The decline in the study of Asian languages in Australian schools has been an issue for some time. During the election campaign Mr Rudd made it an issue. Then, in 2008 the Government launched the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program.The target was that by 2020 at least 12 per of students would leave Year 12 "fluent enough in Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean to engage in trade and commerce in Asia or university study".

The difficulty now is that fewer than 6% of students complete Asian languages in Year 12. So absolute numbers have to more than double over the next ten years if the target is to be met. Whether the narrow focus on year 12 numbers is the best way of achieving Mr Rudd's recently restated vision, "My vision is for Australia to be the most Asia-literate nation in the collective West", is open to question. In this post, I want to look just at school language studies drawing on my recent experience as a parent with daughters in the NSW school system.

As with all these things, a number of interacting factors are involved.

The first is one that I have pointed to before, a decline in interest in Asia, an increase in interest in Europe. Many Australian young have simply fallen in love with Europe. I am not sure why this has happened, but can point to a few things.

Australian interest in Asia grew rapidly in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This was the period of first discovery among the Australian young of a new and then different world. There was a romance about Asia. Very few Australians spoke Asian languages. There was a catch-up effect, including intensive Asian language training among diplomats and defence personnel. This flowed through into the schools and universities, reinforced by trade ties and especially with Japan.

It is easy today when Japan has been overtaken by China in economic terms, to underestimate just how strong the interest in Japan was and indeed Asia in general. By the mid 1980s, interest in traditional languages such as French or German seemed in terminal decline, with the future lying in Asian languages. In the Northern Territory, for instance, the then Government saw the Territory's long tem future in terms of growing economic integration with Indonesia. By 1987, there were probably more students studying Indonesian in NT schools than the total number of Indonesian language students in Australia today.

  One of the paradoxical effects of the big increase in Asian migration is that it actually reduced interest in and incentive to study Asian languages. It was much easier for employers who needed access to language skills to employ a native speaker. There was no longer any real career advantage in a native English speaker learning another language. Further, there was a crowding out effect in the schools.

Entry to university is a competitive business. If you do a foreign language and are competing in exams against a native speaker also doing that language, you are likely to be disadvantaged. Increasingly, language streams have become dominated by those who already speak the language or at least have direct access to it at home.

This problem was compounded by the overcrowded and bitsy nature of the curriculum. My daughters did Bahasa at one point, but never got enough of the language to give them any incentive to continue. It was really cultural training. Even at senior secondary, the 500 hours (I think that it's 500 hours) allowed is actually not enough for most students to get to real fluency.

To put this into context, the intensive official language training provided to officials to get them to basic fluency involved twelve weeks full immersion in the language. Now that roughly equates to 500 hours, but it was continuous and was reinforced by after hours conversation.

I mentioned the growing love of Europe among the young. I can pinpoint this a little at a personal level.

The enormously popular movie Under the Tuscan Sun was made in 2003. By then, the love affair with Europe was well entrenched. Just how did this happen?

If my memory serves me correctly, SBS TV began broadcasting in 1985. SBS was intended to be a multicultural voice, a refection of the replacement of the previous anglo-celtic dominance by a more diverse community. This coincided with a variety of government activities intended to reinforce multi-culturalism. However, by their very nature, these activities were European focused simply because the majority of new migrants over the previous forty years had come from Europe. This was reinforced by other factors.

In 1965, the majority of travel between Australia and Europe was UK focused. By 1985, the pattern of travel was far more diverse. Further, the rise of the EU meant that Europe itself had a stronger profile in Australia. Higher Australian living standards, cheaper fares, higher European visibility, a more diverse set of European connections, all combined to increase familiarity with Europe.

This was reinforced by something that I can only call a cultural love affair. I chose Under the Tuscan Sun because it typifies the trend. Australians now know more about Tuscany than they do about New England!

These trends had a rolling impact at school level. Interest in European languages began to rise. Enrolments at European language schools increased, as did enrolments in European language classes at school. School interchanges and exchanges increased. All this was reinforced by increasing travel.

If I look just at my daughters' school cohorts, some of the Asian kids are the only one with an Asian language or indeed real Asian focus. Everywhere else, Europe has become dominant. The previously dominant British and Empire focus has been replaced by a Euro focus. Oddly, this is in fact narrower simply because the old Empire was far more diverse than modern Europe.

I support Mr Rudd's focus on Asian languages. We do need to be moving towards a new meld. However, whatever Government may propose, the community ultimately disposes.

I don't think that we are going to achieve Mr Rudd's vision "for Australia to be the most Asia-literate nation in the collective West" on present policies. We need a further national conversation, and one couched in specifics.

Take my previous arguments on Indonesia. We know that greater integration between Australia and Indonesia is inevitable. The only question to be addressed is the form of that integration. Language is important here.


Anonymous said...

dear jim,

this really a good article. I just known that asian language in reality is much known even much learned by australian in some periode of time.

But by the change of condition and due to some reasons this interest of language is decreased. I believe tht by the continouslly of asia - australia relationship this language still needed even although many of the native more trusted to use it

i remember when i applied in one of australia airlines (qantas), the candidate should be able to speak one of asian language and recognise about asian countries due to its expansion in asia.

I also will learn additional language beside english, and i am considered that language must be used of more nation inthe world, like france, spanish etc in order to flexible to be used in some place

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Niar and thanks. Sorry for the delay in responding, but I was away.

If more Australian firms like Qantas insisted on second languages, then kids would have a greater incentive to learn them.