Aidan Wilson writes:

Every so often, the lack of language education in Australian high schools becomes a topic of acute but peripheral political debate, before quickly submerging again. At the moment we’re right in the middle of a trough of that cycle, but a couple of weeks ago, Julie Bishop announced her personal ambition to have Asian languages compulsorily taught in school. If all goes well for her (and that’s a huge if), this will be a Coalition policy by the next election.

Having at least some Asian languages on offer in high school education makes complete sense from a geopolitical perspective, as I’ll go into more detail about below. Making Asian language lessons mandatory however, might be a bit more sticky with the electorate, particularly more conservative voters. Although having said that, it’s currently compulsory for primary school children to learn a foreign language, and neither the kids nor their parents have any say over what language it is. Perhaps it’s because it’s often French or Italian as opposed to, say, Korean or Hmong, that we don’t mind so much.

The story was covered only by it would appear, although there are 260 comments on the article. So clearly this kind of suggestion generates a lot of discussion. The comments, not that I could be bothered reading each one of course, seem to group into a few categories. Firstly there’s the ‘great idea’ camp – not exactly a majority; then there’s the ‘mandatory anything is indefensible’, there are plenty of those; and finally, the very large and very broad category which believes that a) Australia is an English speaking country, therefore b) we should speak English, as should everyone who comes here (and even everyone else as well), and c) we should make sure our kids speak English better, because they’re clearly failing miserably at that these days.

A couple of the choicest cuts:

what happened to other nationalities learning our language? LAST TIME I LOOKED WE LIVED IN AUSTRALIA NOT AUSTRAL ASIA – Lorr of Campsie (comment 33)

Me speak no good English. Me speak chop chop english. Me naibor speak pidgin english. Good to learn propel Ozie english first. Learn other langage no good, if you not now you mother langage good. Also very good to read and rite propel english first. Western alfabet easy than chinees or japanees or korea karaktes. me say, learn good you mother langage first, then think to learn other langage in high school. – ‘chop chop English’ of Melbourne (comment 146)

Australians generally are monolingual, in fact the English speaking world, with some exceptions, is generally monolingual. This has engendered what is now often referred to as ‘the monolingual mindset’, which is roughly the belief that monolingualism is the norm and that we should therefore concentrate on teaching English and not waste resources teaching other languages. The assumption that monolingualism is the norm is erroneous because the majority of people in the world are bilingual at the very least, and very often speak a plurality of languages. Monolingualism, globally speaking, is the exception not the rule. The monolingual mindset moreover, and everything that goes with it, has solidified further in the English-speaking world; we expect people who come here, be they travellers, tourists or immigrants, to speak English, yet we rarely return the favour when we travel to other countries. This is, in essence, linguistic imperialism and judging by the vast majority of the comments on Bishop’s plan, most of us are happy to be linguistic imperialists as long as it is our language that’s winning.

The monolingual mindset is also damaging because there is experimental evidence that speaking multiple languages is not only not harmful to one’s learning a first language, but is actually beneficial to one’s cognitive abilities (this Wikipedia page has some links to relevant research). That is, learning other ways of constructing representations of reality builds more neural connections. In short, learning languages make you smarter. In addition, there are distinct benefits to literacy of learning a second language as a child, as by learning differing methods of how to map sounds onto symbols, children begin to understand the whole literacy thing much earlier. By not encouraging children to make the most of the literacy and cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, we’re doing them a disservice.

With respect to geography, we should be sophisticated enough to recognise that we’re just not part of Europe anymore, if we ever were. Our financial and trade links with Europe and the Americas are dwarfed by our links to Asia, particularly China and Japan, and our location means that Indonesia is a huge part of our neighbourhood. The languages that we should be learning from an economic and geographic viewpoint are therefore languages like Mandarin (and Cantonese, I suppose), Japanese and Bahasa Indonesia. Linguistically speaking these three languages have nothing in common; they are from three entirely independent language families (Cantonese is closely related to Mandarin), but that’s not relevant to this discussion, except to note that ‘Asian languages’ as a label does not constitute a contiguous class of languages apart from their geographic proximity.

Bishop makes another benefit of Australian students learning Asian languages that I hadn’t thought of; that it would be a ‘brilliant form of soft diplomacy’. I for one, think she’s right – bigotry often dissipates quickly when the bigots meet and interact with the object of their derision; perhaps learning another culture’s language will have a comparable effect. Clearly this won’t be an immediate fix for Australia’s deep-seated issues, to put it mildly, but Bishop has a long-term vision in mind.

Maybe in fifty or so years, when everyone knows at least a cursory amount of Mandarin, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese, Khmer or whatever, even if it’s as trivial as how to count to ten and how to sing a children’s nursery rhyme, we might feel a little less out of place in our region.