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Asia literacy: Is there a jobs pay-off?

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This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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31 October 2011 11:13


This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Geoff Miller is the former Director-General of the Office of National Assessments.

Andrew Carr's article on the need to stimulate demand for Asian languages in Australian schools seems to me correct in raising the issue of supply and demand. But perhaps it doesn't raise the issue at a basic enough level. That basic level, it seems to me, is jobs.

Many, if not most, Asian languages are very difficult, with mastery requiring years of effort and study. At a time when secondary school curricula are more crowded than before (with IT, for example, a whole major field that used not to exist), it's not at all clear that the effort and study of Asian languages leads to job opportunities for young Australians. 

In the '80s and '90s there was a tremendous emphasis on Japanese. Ministers visiting Japan or welcoming Japanese visitors took pride in saying that, apart from Japan itself, Australia was the world's largest centre for the study of the Japanese language. The rationale for encouraging young Australians to learn Japanese was simple: Japan is Australia's largest trade partner; the volume of trade is very great; therefore the job opportunities for young Australian Japanese-speakers must be great as well.

Unfortunately, this just wasn't so.

The Australian mining houses which sold enormous quantities of raw materials to Japan didn't believe that they needed significant numbers of Australian Japanese-speakers to make their sales (indeed, much of the trade was facilitated by Japanese trading houses, rather than by the Australian firms themselves or Australian intermediaries). And Japanese firms operating in Australia preferred to employ English-speaking Japanese. Even Japanese tourism firms chose to employ Japanese rather than Australian Japanese-speakers 'because Japanese tourists feel more comfortable with their own people'.

This led to a great deal of disillusion, and forced career change, on the part of young Australians who had taken at face value the heralded opportunities from learning Japanese.

So before we embark on another wave of promoting 'Asia literacy' and Asian language-learning we really need to be clear about what prospects we can realistically hold out to young people. It's not enough to say that Asia-committed people in Australia are sure there are many advantages to be gained to the nation from a deeper knowledge of Asian cultures and languages. Do private employers think that? Does the Commonwealth Government, a major employer and international operator on Australia's behalf, think that? If so, do they show it by their employment practices?

Resource companies, each year selling even more mineral products to Asian countries at higher and higher prices, may well contend that things are going perfectly satisfactorily as they are. In their case, supply and demand is working very well indeed, despite the constant claims that Australia needs to develop greater Asia literacy.

I think, however, that while that approach works well in a benign supply and demand situation, it might prove inadequate in a different set of circumstances. Certainly, establishing ourselves as a major services provider in Asian countries will require sound knowledge of local conditions and cultures, including languages. And even in regard to the great resources trade, while supply and demand will certainly determine the major parameters, there would seem to be more nuanced areas where deep local knowledge could make a difference.

So I am not opposed to a campaign for greater Asia literacy. But before the Government decides to embark on such a thing it really is vital to establish what the prospects are for the young Australians being invited to devote years of their lives to such a project. Which firms or government agencies will want to employ them, and how many? Will such a specialisation be a help or a hindrance in their careers?

Of course it could be argued that this would only give us a 'snapshot', static information on a dynamic and developing situation. But a snapshot would be better than not having any such information at all, and information about what years of work and study can realistically be expected to lead to is essential if we are to responsibly promote such an undertaking to Australia's young people.

 

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