The federal government’s Asian Century white paper wants more school students, a lot more, learning Asian languages, particularly the “priority languages” of Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese, but also Korean, Vietnamese and Thai. Well, good luck with that.
There is a long a dismal history of people who love languages — and languages are a wonderful thing to love — getting politicians and policy wonks to say that schools and kids should to do something that they aren’t good at, and don’t want to do.
The landmark dud was the Hawke government’s National Policy on Languages launched in 1987 to great fanfare by the prime minister himself. The upshot? In 2008, the big four Asian languages managed to get enrolments from just 6% of year 12 students. When you remember that most year 12 students enrol in four or five subjects, that’s probably not much more than 1% of total year 12 subject enrolments. And those numbers are in decline.
The point that the kids get and the policymakers don’t is that it’s too hard. Most of that tiny proportion of year 12 enrolments comes from students who already speak the language. They don’t need the language study, of course, and they’re not adding to our stock of language speakers. They’re simply cashing their chips. Numbers enrolled in year 12 Mandarin, for example, nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008 — almost all of the increase coming from native speakers.
What monolingual Australian kid is going to pit themselves against that competition? Indonesian is not so daunting because the vocab and structure are similar to English, and it uses the Roman alphabet and script. But Mandarin? Or, even harder, Korean?
The kids also know there’s no real need. If they go to Asian holidays, as so many do, there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get by. That’s true of most business travellers too. English is the world’s lingua franca, and we’ve got it for free. Asian people learn English because they have to. We don’t learn their language because for the most part we don’t have to.
To the extent that we do need Asian-language speakers for business or other purposes, why on earth get schools to produce them? We’ve already got them.
There can be few if any societies in the world as rich in languages as Australia. Need Mandarin speakers? We’ve already got more than 330,000 of them. As for the other languages urged on schools by the white paper, we have 111,000 Hindi speakers, 56,000 Indonesian, 44,000 Japanese, 80,000 Korean, 233,000 Vietnamese and 37,000 Thai. And that is without counting hundreds of thousands of Asian international students, many of whom would jump at the chance of employment in Australia if and as needed.
A total 37 languages — 17 of them Asian — are spoken as a first language by more than 20,000 people in Australia. Compare that with year 12 enrolments in 2008: 5256 in Mandarin, 4910 in Japanese and just 1311 in Indonesian, most, as noted above, native speakers already.
Schools are very inefficient and expensive places to teach languages, even if you can get the kids to tackle it. Teachers are expensive to train and hard to keep. It is rare for one school to have enough students enrolled in a language to need a full-time teacher, so teachers get shared across schools, which is complicated, and leaves everyone vulnerable to the teacher’s resignation, promotion or transfer.
Languages learned in schools don’t really stick unless they include periods of in-country language immersion and/or are used as the medium of instruction across the curriculum, the former feasible for those who can afford it, the latter impossible. To the extent that problems are reduced by internet-delivered instruction, as they increasingly will be, the best bet will be to make it available to tertiary students and others for learning on an as-needed basis.
Whoever it is that foisted on Asian century a “policy” that can’t, needn’t and shouldn’t be implemented might do some sums about the cost of what is proposed, and then suggest that governments spend the money instead on sponsoring programs for kids to stay in Asian countries in the vacations following years 10 and 11, and 12. They wouldn’t learn much language but they would learn about a culture very different from their own, and they’d jump at it.
*Dean Ashenden has been a consultant to many state and national education agencies and ministers