Guest blogger Lochlan Morrissey writes…

An article earlier this week discusses the decline of the number of NSW students studying Asian languages – Mandarin Chinese is the only mentioned specifically by the article – for their High School Certificates.

“Between 2010 and 2012, the number of high school students learning Chinese grew by 42 per cent to almost 10,000,” the article states. “Yet, over the same period, the number of HSC students studying the language shrunk by 27 per cent. And figures released last week show just 902 HSC students studied Chinese this year, a 5 per cent drop from last year.”

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A worrying drop, for sure, in a country whose number of second language speakers is already abysmally low. But what’s interesting is the explanation offered by president of the NSW Board of Studies, Tom Alegounarias, who is indirectly quoted as saying that ‘it was likely students were not convinced a language gave them the competitive edge it once did’.

I’m not convinced. In my experience as a language learner, I’ve only come across a handful of native Australian English speakers whose primary motivation for learning a second language is economic utility. In those cases, the utility generally relates either to their current job, or their prospective career options and to the ‘opening of possibilities’.

It seems to me far more common for language learners to be attracted to this taxing but infinitely rewarding pursuit by having a personal connection to the language. Japanese learners who loved anime and manga before learning the language; Swedish learners who loved the picturesque streets of Stockholm before picking up their first phrasebook; Quenya learners whose obsession with J. R. R. Tolkien’s universe led them to discover its manifold, complex tongues; learners of Indigenous Australian Languages who, by their love of and fascination with language itself, are driven to document and help conserve those with uncertain futures. Friends of mine have been compelled to learn Russian by a curiosity of the Cyrillic alphabet. Another friend was obsessed with the idea of studying Italian after playing the popular video game Assassin’s Creed II, set in fifteenth-century Tuscany: he never did, but he still remembers the word “assassino” and the phrase “va bene” (“okay”, “alright”).

Promoting the cultures of the languages that you wish to support would, I argue, be far more effective than their economic utility as a language. Exposure to different cultures and their languages can come in many different forms, and through the most remote and convoluted paths. When someone suddenly develops a passion, any concerns over economic viability of that passion won’t matter as much as following it. In the case of language learning, some people will be attracted to it through economic concerns, but more people will ultimately be successful language learners if they are engaged with and passionate about the language they are learning, and its culture.

Lochlan Morrissey (@sghignazzo) is a PhD candidate at Griffith University, Brisbane, researching game theory and the Italian theatre genre, commedia dell’arte

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Peter Fray
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