Asian languages

Time for radical rethink on language policy


An Australian institute of languages could do for language learning what the Australian Institute of Sport has done for sport, JOHN INGELSON believes.

For many Australians, understanding the social and cultural dynamics of Asian countries and their peoples does not come naturally. This is understandable, given the lack of a shared cultural framework and historical experience. We have to work deliberately at developing an understanding because in a democracy governments cannot stray too far from the views of the majority.

If we are ever going to be comfortable with our geography, curricula at all levels of our education system must have a greater focus on Asian countries. They must also ensure that this is not merely an option.

Considerable progress has been made in inserting Asia content into school curricula, particularly at the primary and lower secondary levels. Less progress has been made on the Asian languages front. In part this is because of constant changes in policy and short-term funding. It also reflects the difficulty of creating a language policy in a largely English-speaking society with such a wide range of migrant communities that, understandably, want to see their language heritage preserved.

Language policy in particular seems to be captive to political expediency. We desperately need consistency in language policy. We cannot continue to be making constant ‘reforms’ and turning funds on and off. A national language policy must integrate language learning at all levels and must focus on a limited number of languages. I am told that we currently offer around 50 different languages in schools. This is not the basis for a language policy. Nor is the idea of spending scarce resources on teaching second languages in preschools.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that all language policies in Australia have failed and that simply doing more of the same or tinkering at the edges will only lead to more failure. Perhaps we  should consider a radically different approach.

The first question is whether we really believe that educating a growing number of young Australia to master an Asian language is important? If we think that it is, then perhaps we should  consider establishing an Australian institute of languages to do for language learning what the Australian Institute of Sport has done for sport? We are very good at teaching English as a second language—there is no reason why we could not adopt the same methodologies and structures for other languages.

Imagine an Australian institute of languages, with branches in every state, teaching languages and certifying language competency. It could offer courses in intensive mode —by far the best way to learn a language—or in extended mode. The money we currently spend on failed language learning in schools could be used to provide free instruction for students. An Australian Institute of Languages could also offer HECS-based intensive mode courses for university students. Companies would pay for staff to learn in either mode.

Mixed success

There has been mixed success in the study of Asian countries and Asian languages at the university level. In 1988 I led an inquiry into Asia in Australian Higher Education for the Asian Studies Council. Since then the percentage of university students studying a language—any language let alone an Asian language—has declined. Chinese and Japanese have done much better than  Indonesian or Korean.

There has been more success in incorporating Asia content into undergraduate courses. Areas of study such as international relations and media studies, as well as some areas of business studies have more Asia content than they did 25 years ago. Other areas, such as history and politics, have fared less well. However, the number of specialist Asia scholars—those with both language skills and a deep knowledge of one or more Asian country—may actually have declined in the last 25 years. If this is so, then it is a worrying trend.

While there has undoubtedly been some progress, the goal of creating ‘Asia literate’ graduates is still a long way from realisation. Of the many thousands of Australian undergraduates undertaking exchange programs at overseas universities each year, very few go to universities in Asia. Language is a barrier—though not in Hong Kong, Singapore or India—nevertheless, many of the best  universities in Asia offer courses in English. Americans and Europeans are far better represented in these courses than Australians.

It was partly to rectify this that the current government created the New Colombo Plan. This year it will fund—and fund generously—60 undergraduates to study at an Asian university for between six and 12 months and, if they wish, undertake an industry placement. To her credit, the foreign minister has a vision of a considerably expanded scheme.

I have two concerns. First, as with all government programs it is only funded for four years. We had a similar scheme between 1990 and 1994—over 5 years more than 500 students were funded to study in Asia. The scheme was abandoned after an audit by people who had not the faintest idea of what it was all about. If we are ever going to become Asia literate and fully part of the Asia region we need bipartisan commitment to the New Colombo Plan as a long-term investment, and it must be scaled up to become like the Erasmus Programme in Europe. We deserve better than yet another of the short-term policies that bedevil Australian education.

My second concern is that there have been very few applications from science and engineering students or from students in professional faculties. This reflects to some extent rigidities imposed on universities by professional associations. But it also reflects internal inflexibilities that need to be addressed by universities themselves.

‘Australia is unlikely to be able to influence any part of Asia except marginally. On the contrary, I shall expect those parts of Asia closer to Australia to have increasingly strong influence on it’.

Australian students are the losers from the inflexibility of many programs in accommodating overseas study. The Indian Institutes of Technology and the technology faculties in Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea are first rate, as are those in the best of the Chinese universities.

A year ago the Director of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore commented that while his school enrols around 200 students each year into its masters programs from almost every country in Asia as well as from the United States, Britain and Europe, it had yet to enrol an Australian. There is something deeply disturbing here.

Australian influence

Wang Gungwu, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong and before that Professor of Chinese History at the Australian National University, some years ago reflected on Asian perceptions of Australia and what the future might hold in the Asian region. Wang argued that ‘… Australia is unlikely to be able to influence any part of Asia except marginally. On the contrary, I shall expect those parts of Asia closer to Australia to have increasingly strong influence on it’.

He went on to say:

… the Australia that Asians will see would be largely one that reacts against, or responds to, changing Asia. The future would then centre on how successfully Australia defends itself against what it does not like about Asia and how successfully it adapts itself and absorbs what it does like.

This is an enormous challenge and one that will require considerable effort to educate ourselves about a region that for most of our history we have either feared or ignored. Fortunately, the very diversity of Asia means that Australia is just one more part of that diversity. This will make Australia’s Asian future much less difficult to navigate than if Asia was an homogenous whole.

The smallness of the Australian economy and the growing prosperity of the region means that we will more often than not be
playing ‘away from home’.

Nevertheless, there are so many differences between the dominant culture in Australia and the dominant cultures in Asian societies that Australians are not always going to find the adjustments easy. And make no mistake, the smallness of the Australian economy and the growing prosperity of the region means that we will more often than not be playing ‘away from home’. We will have to get used to having to accommodate the other’s values, attitudes and belief rather more often than them accommodating ours.

Australia is much more diverse, much richer culturally and far more connected with its region than it was 50 years ago. The economic and social changes taking place throughout Asia and the rapidly changing geopolitical environment means that Australia has an Asia future, whether we like it or not. The real question is whether we will embrace this future—including the uncomfortable bits—and seek to be an active participant rather than be reactive and defensive. I am increasingly confident we will. Australia can make a unique contribution to the diversity of Asia because of its European heritage. And Asia can make a unique contribution to Australia that will enrich that heritage.

This is an edited version of a public lecture given at the University of Western Australia in December 2014.

An Australian institute of languages could do for language learning what the Australian Institute of Sport has done for sport (JJ Harrison.  File licensed under Creative Commons).

About John Ingleson

John Ingleson is Emeritus Professor of History at UNSW.

15th February, 2015

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