William Steed writes:

The Australia in the Asian Century whitepaper is about more than just Australians learning Chinese; its aim is more about encouraging engagement with Asia in many facets – particularly business and trade. Although a whitepaper does not necessarily inspire particular outcomes, it can be considered a guide to developing policy directions. Dan Ashenden’s commentary on the white paper is already here on Crikey.  As a linguist first, and then an educator, I’m most concerned with what it has to say about Australians learning languages.

The whitepaper has two goals relevant to language (pp15-16):

10. Every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia across the curriculum to increase their cultural knowledge and skills and enable them to be active in the region. All schools will engage with at least one school in Asia to support the teaching of a priority Asian language, including through increased use of the National Broadband Network.

11. All Australian students will have the opportunity, and be encouraged, to undertake a continuous course of study in an Asian language throughout their years of schooling. All students will have access to at least one priority Asian language; these will be Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.

These are mostly continuations of policies developed in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly the Multiculturalism Policy, and the series of language policies starting from the 1987 National Policy on Languages as part of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s encouragement of Australian engagement with Asia. As goals, they are fine things, but the pathways to achieving them will determine their chances of success. The Coalition has already said that the goals set out in Australia in the Asian Century lack “meat on the bones”. Academic and expert on Australian language policy Joseph LoBianco (@josephlobianco) tweeted “little new re languages in schools, mostly reiterates existing actions. Much to welcome in Asia Studies“, and notes the (good) inclusion of Hindi as a priority language and (disappointing) lack of emphasis on Korean. Benjamin Herscovitch (@B_Herscovitch) of the libertarian Centre for Independent Studies reminds us that we have a core of Asia literacy in our immigrants and their families (though he neglects to mention that that literacy rarely extends into mainstream Australia).

So what are the pathways set for these goals and are they achievable?

Fully implement the Australian Curriculum, which includes the cross-curriculum priority of ‘Asia and Australia’s engagement in Asia’. Develop measures to track how Australian students are increasing their knowledge of Asia, in consultation with States and Territories and non-government education authorities. (p15)

This is already in the pipeline. The Australia Curriculum includes goals at many levels of primary and secondary education that stress Asia-literacy – understanding cultural differences, history, literature, religion and, importantly for me, language. Implementing this requires assuring that there are sufficient teaching resources, including Asia-literate teachers, to pass this knowledge on to students.

Work collaboratively with States, Territories, non-government education authorities and higher education institutions to develop detailed strategies for studies of Asia to become a core part of school education. (p15)

This will, one hopes, assist in the implementation of the Australian Curriculum above. Coordinating between so many bodies to put the goal into practice will be difficult, but is certainly a goal worth aiming for. It has the sound of a goal with difficult-to-measure outcomes. It’s easy to demonstrate collaboration to develop strategies, but developing appropriate and implementable strategies is more difficult. I would certainly like to see some strategies, but am skeptical about them appearing.

Ensure that every Australian student has continuous access to high-quality Asian language curriculums, assessment and reporting in priority Asian languages as a core requirement in the new school funding arrangements to be negotiated between the Commonwealth, the States and Territories, and non-government education authorities. (p16)

Once again, this is a highly appropriate and valuable goal. However, the barriers to achieving it are great. The AFMLTA’s (Australian Federation of Modern Language Teaching Associations) submission to the report says “Current national targets for proficiency in Asian languages and cultures are admirable but unachievable in the current educational context, significantly in relation to years of compulsory languages education, overall time allocations and frequency of lessons.” The way language classes are currently situated in our education system, it is difficult to achieve any useful competency during secondary education. It recommends more incorporation of bilingual schooling and full-immersion education (already occurring to some extent in many schools around Australia).

In large, urban schools, it is somewhat easier to have access to classes for an Asian language (usually Indonesian or Japanese, less frequently Mandarin and rarely Hindi), but even then, finding teachers at anything more than a introductory level can be difficult. In a regional or rural setting, this becomes even more difficult. It is my understanding that it can be difficult to find language teachers in general for smaller rural schools, let alone teachers of Asian languages.

“High quality” is a key phrase in this pathway.  Australian language classrooms run a difficult balance between making classes inviting enough to keep enrolments up, and delivering enough content to build a capability that will be useful in a real-life context. I have been told by many people that they studied a language for six or seven years in school, but two or three years later, cannot remember how to say more than a few words. This is hardly a problem limited to Australia, but building real-life capabilities in a language, particularly an Asian language with less in common with English) takes more than three hours a week of exercises.

At the university level, the whitepaper refers to useful initiatives by universities (in particular, ANU, UWA, UMelb) that the government will support – required language study, Asian language diplomas, exchange programs and the like. Most of this section actually requires little active influence from the government sector, other than vague phrasing like “support” and “encourage”.

Lead a collaborative process with States and Territories, non-government education authorities and tertiary education institutions to develop detailed strategies for studies of Asia and Asian language take-up in schools, including through increased use of the National Broadband Network. (p16)

Using the NBN (once it has been rolled out) will certainly assist implementing the previous pathway – a rural school being able to dial into a classroom in a larger school, or even a teacher in another country will certainly improve its teaching capabilities. Learning by video-link is no substitute for a teacher who can wander the desks and provide face-to-face teaching, but it beats many of the other options (anecdotes of Japanese or Indonesion being taught by a PE teacher who is barely a lesson ahead of the students come to mind). All of this is, of course, hypothetical at the moment, while the NBN is rolling out. If the roll-out is effective, and connections with overseas institutions can be made, this could be the most innovative of the pathways suggested in the whitepaper.

Work with business and the community to increase understanding of the benefits of learning a foreign language and boost demand for language studies. (p16)

This is a very difficult pathway. Working with communities is something very useful – providing a context where students can actually use the language skills they are learning is very important. However, Australia has been, and remains, a country where it is difficult to encourage people to learn a foreign language. Native English speakers who achieve a skill level in a foreign language higher than being able to bargain in a marketplace are considered either very intelligent or even slightly mystical. The whitepaper itself says:

Most students in most highly developed education systems around the world are proficient in more than one language by the time they finish school, and many are proficient in three (AEF 2012). … By contrast the share of Australian students studying languages, including many Asian languages, is small and has fallen in recent times. Between 2000 and 2008, the share of Australian students learning a tertiary accredited language other than English in Year 12 dropped in a time where overall student numbers increased by almost 9 per cent. In 2008, less than 6 per cent of Australian school students studied Indonesian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese (Mandarin) in Year 12 (AEF 2012, MCEETYA 2008). Fewer Year 12 students studied Indonesian in 2009 than in 1972 (Hill 2012). And, while Japanese remains the most widely taught language in Australian schools, student numbers fell by 16 per cent from 2000 to 2008 (de Kretser & Spence-Brown 2010).

Australia is well behind other education systems in this respect, even taking into account that they are often learning English as their first second language. In officially acknowledging the problem, we are moving into the ‘twelve step program’ of breaking our monolingual addiction. Knowing the details about how we can encourage more voluntary foreign language learning is one of the next steps – it has been a problem without a solution for some time.

What’s the verdict, then? Is the whitepaper worthy? My verdict is: generally, yes, but with some apprehension. The goals are worthwhile (even if they are somewhat recycled). Some of the pathways can be implemented easily enough, but I suspect others are not as simple as they appear. Others require little work from a government perspective and a lot of work from other bodies and institutions. My apprehensions do not mean that I think the goals should not be attempted. Personally, I think Asian literacy and languages should be encouraged, and the whitepaper is a good start to approaching the problem, even if it is not likely to actually be achieved this time around.