‘Too foreign, difficult and suspicious’: Discourses of Chinese language learning in Australia

‘Too foreign, difficult and suspicious’: Discourses of Chinese language learning in Australia

One effect of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been the development of significant diplomatic tensions between China, the world’s second largest economy, and various ’Western’ powers. In Australia, China-scepticism has resulted in Australian-born Chinese being targeted. A recent survey showed that eight in ten Asian Australians reported having been physically threatened or attacked in the past year, with most identifying prejudice stemming from the pandemic, and hostility between Canberra and Beijing, as key motivators for those race-based aggressions.

Tensions have extended to education. Controversies include, for example, China’s Ministry of Education advising Chinese international students that Australia is unsafe for Chinese students; calls to close Confucius Institutes in Australia and internationally; and some Chinese-sponsored language programs in public schools closing over political concerns.

Australia’s education agendas for the 21st century proclaim support for Australian students to become future global citizens, as Australia finds itself increasingly communicating and competing in the Asia-Pacific region. Learning an Asian language has been promoted as contributing to these goals, and Chinese has been widely heralded as the ‘language for the future’. However, this notion is obscured when the ‘enigma’ of China and speakers of the Chinese language, are seen as a threat.

The readiness with which the goals of language learning, and its associated benefits—intercultural competence, literacy, language awareness and critical thinking—can be discarded reduces language to a strategic resource whose primary value lies in economic factors. We were therefore interested in exploring how the discourses of ‘hope, hype and fear’ of Chinese language study were articulated in the media and everyday professional conversations of language teachers.

Our research

We conducted a study that drew on articles from media across different states and territories of Australia on Chinese language education, and interview data with practising language teachers from Victoria, Australia, regarding their classroom pedagogy and practice, and their experiences of public perceptions of the work of language teachers.

In our analysis of the media articles and the interview data, we found a strong discrepancy between advocacy for Chinese language instruction as key to Australia’s economic future, and media and public debates that portray Chinese as ‘too difficult and too foreign to learn’. Learning Chinese was portrayed as linked to the dissemination of Chinese government propaganda, and as undermining Australia’s anglophone, Anglo-European identity. Overall, three main themes emerged: 

  • Chinese is the ‘language of the future’   
  • Chinese taught in Confucius Classrooms in Australia is suspicious  
  • Chinese culture and language are too foreign and difficult for Australians to master.

Chinese as the ‘language of the future’ 

One of our interview participants – Danielle, Head of Languages at a Catholic secondary school in Melbourne – pointed out that learning Asian languages has always been subject to economic imperatives:

Now the Chinese economy is very strong and I think we’ll see parents supporting the choice of Chinese. We’ve had parents ringing up our school and saying, “Why aren’t you doing Chinese?”  

Danielle’s experience highlights how the economic imperative of Asian languages study is strongly embedded in education debates not only at policy and curriculum, but also at a school level. The media articles included in our study also reflected this Asian Century discourse, which heralds China as the ‘rising’ economic and geopolitical power. Chinese education programs were often described as ‘cutting edge’: statements such as ‘bilingual first in schools’ and ‘preschool language program rolled out’  suggest that bilingual language programs are a novelty, rather than an established tradition in Australia. 

Several articles also suggested that language education was less about language learning than about technological innovation: students would be able to form ‘virtual relationships’ with ‘digital sister schools’ ‘with the help of an innovative program’. The notion of using technology to connect with ‘real’ Chinese people in mainland China is based on an imagination of languages as discrete, distant and geopolitically defined. It reinforces the perception that the purpose of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’, outside Australia. This renders invisible the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own back yard’.

Chinese and Confucius Classrooms: The language of suspicion

Controversies regarding the role of Confucius Institutes, including concerns around the proliferation of communist ideology through its links with the Chinese Communist Party, the suppression of freedom of speech and engaging in espionage, featured prominently in our data. Media articles reporting on Confucius Classrooms revealed a strong focus on the perceived threat that China’s investment in language and culture learning poses to the Australian education system. 

Headings such as ‘Schools paid $10,000 to teach Chinese,portray China as the sole driver of such programs, despite the federal government’s policy focus on developing language proficiency in Chinese. Statements in the same article, such as “Victorian schools are pocketing $10,000 from a Chinese government body” and “One might say that if a school program is ‘just teaching language’, it could not be political, but with Chinese everything is political” position the study of Chinese language and culture as threats to Australian national identity.

Henry, a teacher of Chinese at an independent Foundation to Grade 12 college, identifies similar suspicions when teaching resources for Chinese language education in Australia are developed and disseminated by the Confucius Institute:  

 “When the Chinese Government’s name is tagged against it, people become ultra-cautious.” 

Henry’s comment reiterates a recurring theme of uneasiness for both advocates and critics of Chinese language education in Australia, in which an apprehensive stance towards Chinese language learning is reinforced. 

Chinese culture and language are too difficult and ‘too foreign’ 

The instrumentalisation of the study of Chinese language and culture—and the threat Chinese poses to Australian national identity—also manifests in a hierarchical view of languages:  

People often suggest learning Chinese. I don’t believe Chinese is essential as all Chinese students learn English … however, basic Chinese skills assist in business etiquette and overcoming the cultural barrier.

Language and cultural knowledge are portrayed as useful skills in this quote by a business owner who was interviewed for a career advice feature (‘First job–and where are you now?’ The Gold Coast Bulletin). However, this excerpt suggests that English-dominant Australians need only acquire “survival Chinese”, whereas Chinese speakers are assumed (and expected) to have sufficient communicative proficiency in English. Chinese may be constructed as the “language of the future” and worthwhile engaging with—however, it is not imperative to develop proficiency and a more complex understanding of Chinese culture and society.  

Henry sums up the perceived ‘foreignness’ of Chinese when he points out that Chinese lacks cultural aspects that Australian students can embrace:  

I mean it’s as basic as [Chinese] textbook layout. At the moment it doesn’t feel Western. It feels, just even opening the book, quality of the pages, fonts […] kids look at it and go, “This looks really foreign.”

The “difficulties” of Chinese language study, and the tensions arising from extrinsic motivations for Chinese language learning were widely reported themes in the articles we analysed. Headings such as “Students pass on Chinese challenge, markChinese as a language that is too difficult to warrant the time and effort, even though it is also promoted as a “skill necessary to capitalise on the suite of business and cultural opportunities that exist on our doorstep”. However, as exemplified by the statement “I don’t believe Chinese is essential as all Chinese students learn English,” assumptions about Chinese students’ English language proficiency add a one-sided angle to the “joint effort” of mutual language and culture learning in which Australia, as the hegemonic, anglophone party, can afford to be less committed. This creates a cycle of “privilege and parochialism” for the English speaker, which promotes the notion that business matters do not require a reciprocal effort in engaging with each other’s languages, histories and cultures.

Concluding comments

This research snapshot reflects well-documented themes in media and teacher discourses in Australia about Chinese language education: Chinese language study as instrumental, exoticising cultural and linguistic ‘others’; and strong ambivalence towards China and speakers of Chinese. With the current Australia–China tensions, a serious debate about Australia-China relations seems more important than ever. An informed discussion around oppression in Tibet and Xinjian, and China’s economic restrictions against Australia is long overdue. So is critical engagement with Australia’s multicultural identity, and resistance to racist tropes that allow for a conflation of Chinese Australians with China. If Chinese is to be positioned as the ‘language of the future’, and as a means for re-building relationships, this requires a significant shift in thinking about the way Chinese language education has been approached to date. Such a re-orientation would begin by recognising that ‘while multilingualism is laudatory, the means by which one becomes multilingual also matter’. Moving beyond the binaries of ‘us versus them’ could be key for re-establishing stability in our region. It may raise new questions, and also allow for new answers, about how Australia communicates with its Asian neighbours.

For those who want more:

Weinmann, M., Slavich, S. & Neilsen R. (forthcoming 17 June, 2021). ‘Multiculturalism and the “broken” discourses of Chinese language education’, In: Halse, C. & Kennedy, K. (Eds.). The future of multiculturalism in turbulent times. Asia-Europe Education Dialogue series, Routledge Taylor & Francis.

Dr Rod Neilsen is a senior lecturer in TESOL at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has worked as an English teacher and teacher educator on five continents. He has conducted research into pre-service and in-service teacher mobility and multilingual approaches to language learning. Rod is the Chief Editor of the Australian journal, TESOL in Context. Rod is on Twitter at @RodNeilsen

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