Sydney. Like a surfer who fails to catch a wave off one of its famous beaches, Australia faces an Asian languages “wipe-out” and is being urged to change course.
It must boost language education dramatically if it wants to maintain its influence in the region, bolster its economic ties and prevent intolerance, says the peak union body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Leading business organizations such as the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia are also concerned.
Second-language learning rates in Australia now rank among the lowest in the developed world. Less than 13 percent of final-year students are learning a non-English language, and only 7 percent of all final-year students take an Asian language.
And the problem is getting worse.
The country’s largest state, New South Wales, last year recorded its lowest-ever language enrollment. Just 9 percent of the state’s 72,391 matriculating students learned a language. The most popular language studied in Australian schools is Japanese, followed by Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Chinese.
Analysts, foreign policy experts, political and business leaders have warned that the lack of foreign language skills — particularly Asian languages — is likely to hurt Australia’s economy and limit its interaction with China and other regional players.
Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Asian Law Center at the University of Melbourne, said Australia must urgently try to prevent an “Asia literacy wipe-out.”
“Our national dumbing-down in Asia literacy over the last four decades may mean that the only Western country in Asia may instead find itself marginalized in the coming regional debates over trade, security, environment, regional identity, culture and religion,” he wrote in The Australian. “Ultimately, failure to invest now will cost us a great deal more in terms of national prosperity and security in the future — and it will greatly diminish our national cultural life.”
Amid the growing chorus to improve foreign language skills, opposition leader Tony Abbott this month announced a 10-year plan to boost language learning and lift high school rates to 40 percent. Under the plan, language education would start at preschool, usually for children aged four to six.
Abbott said languages, especially Asian ones, would be vital to Australia’s future engagement with trading partners and the region.
“We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians’ study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline,” he said.
The proposal by Abbott, who is well ahead in the polls and on track to become the country’s next leader, has strong support. It follows a widely welcomed initiative by former prime minister Kevin Rudd to pour A$20 million ($19.7 million) a year into promoting the study of Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Korean in schools.
Kathe Kirby, the executive director of the Asia Education Foundation, which supports Asia literacy programs in schools, said Australians had been complacent about learning foreign languages because of the global dominance of English.
An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report on the issue a decade ago found Australia had the lowest levels of second-language learning in the developed world and — if anything — the problem has since worsened, she said.
“Second-language learning is not an attribute or skill that is highly valued in Australia,” she told The Straits Times. “We have been complacent about the world speaking English. Unlike Europe and parts of Asia, we are not connected by borders to other countries and can drop into this complacency … we are setting our kids up for failure.”
Kirby said she believed “the penny is finally dropping about learning the languages of the region.” Schools are increasingly focusing on Chinese instead of Japanese. “The focus on China has started to gain traction and consciousness only within the last decade.”
In Australia, where schooling is run by the states, second languages are usually compulsory only for primary school and the first two years of high school, for students aged about 12 to 14.
A lecturer and Japanese teacher at the University of Canberra, Dr Yuko Kinoshita, wrote on The Conversation website that language study helped students to “be curious about unfamiliar cultures.”
“Australia needs people who can face unfamiliar values and practices with a healthy respect and tolerance, not arrogance and fear.”
Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times