What is the actual goal of Asian language education?

As Bernard Keane observes in Crikey today, federal government attempts to encourage Asian language teaching in Australian schools date back to the Hawke Government.

The latest incarnation of the policy comes from the Asian Century White Paper, which promises that:

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.

Sounds terrific, but what is this policy actually meant to achieve? Are we merely trying to create a future generation of Australians with a deeper appreciation of Asia, and provide easier pathways for a larger but still small minority whose interests take them there? Or are we actually trying to create future generations where a broad cross-section of Australians are fluent in an Asian language?

The first is a plausible goal. The second is not going to happen.

Learning a foreign language in school, rather than through osmosis, is an extremely difficult task. Every day, I interact with students struggling with English as a second language. Despite being bright, with a huge incentive to master English, and immersed in the language, many foreign students find working in English very, very hard. Many are not fluent speakers, and many can’t write documents suitable for external distribution without a great deal of editing.

And the languages of choice, particularly Mandarin and Japanese, are hard languages to learn. Just learning to pronounce the simplest words in Mandarin requires a lot of practice, because the “tones” (the rise and fall of one’s pitch) communicates meaning in a way it mostly doesn’t in English. Japanese is easier to pronounce, but simply learning the basics of interpersonal communication is complicated by the need to imbue every sentence with the nuances of the relative social status of the speaker and listener. But the biggest barrier to learning either language is the huge numbers of characters you need to learn to be moderately literate. A Japanese high school student is required to learn to read and write more than 2,000 kanji; these are taught all the way through primary school and the complete set isn’t learned until well into high school.

So, becoming fluent, let alone literate, in these languages is a huge task. High school students, particularly, have some choice in what they want to study, and they and their parents are in the main pretty hardheaded when it comes to their choices. If it’s hard work, there has to be a real payoff (not necessarily monetary, mind you) or they simply will not bother, and the rewards for learning an Asian language as a second language in a household that doesn’t speak it are pretty shaky for most.

For some time to come at least, the most likely result of any conceivable Asian language program is students who rapidly lose the ability to remember more than a few of the words they learned in Japanese or Hindi. But a few will have their interest piqued and will go on to make the big investment required to master the language of choice, and many more will have learned something about one of the countries to our north.

Which is a worthy goal, sure. But the idea of widespread fluency in Asian languages – outside the considerable and hugely valuable pool of bilingual Australians who have had the good fortune to learn these languages at their parents’ knee – is not going to happen, and trying would be a huge waste of resources.

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