What's happening at the
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 04:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 04:16 | SYDNEY

Asian languages in Australia

27 Oct 2011 15:31


One policy guaranteed to feature in the \'Australia in the Asian Century\' White Paper is the take-up of Asian languages by Australians. Yet, as my colleague Mark Thirlwell noted to me the other day, we need to think about whether this problem is one of supply or demand.

Most reports argue for a greater government supply of classes and teachers. After all, that\'s relatively easy to accomplish. But I suspect the real issue is low interest, which is why its pleasing to see a new initiative to tackle the demand side:

The project will establish a network of parents who can work collaboratively with school leaders to build student demand for knowledge, skills and understanding of Asia and increase opportunities for them to be exposed to high quality and sustainable teaching programs. A network of 225 Parent Advocates from 75 schools will undertake conversations and projects in their school  communities focused on building demand for Asian Languages and studies. The Parent Advocates will attend a one day training program in clusters of approx. 5 schools. Each cluster will  have a mentor who will also receive training to provide ongoing support to the Parent Advocates in their school  communities throughout the project.

For the average Australian, there\'s little obvious benefit in knowing an Asian language. But for the nation as a whole, the economic and security benefits are significant. One focus of the Asian Century white paper should be explaining how Australians can benefit from higher Asia literacy. Build demand for cultural and social engagement and the language, business and security links will follow.

Photo by Flickr user ShawnMichael.


28 Oct 2011 11:17

Hugh Wyndham:

Andrew says \'Australia has spent at least thirty years arguing about our role in Asia.\' He is showing his youth. When I was short-listed for The Department of External Affairs, as it was then called, in 1964, as part of the 2-day final selection process, I had to write a short essay on the subject \'Is Australia part of Asia?\' That makes it at least 47 years! Given our role in the creation of the Colombo Plan and SEATO, I think it could be argued it goes back a lot longer.

Markus Pfister:

A big thank-you to Andrew Carr and hurrah for Asian languages. Andrew is correct to identify apathetic demand as the major stumbling block. Logistically, it presents no real challenge a country as wealthy and capable as Australia. Overcoming the cultural stumbling blocks however — the island mentality, our awareness of the dominance of English — presents a real difficulty. Creating a culture of language-learning approaching anywhere near our culture of sport will be difficult and will take a generation. It will also take a bit of clever psychology.

But this may also present the key to the puzzle. Having been an educator I have seen for myself the importance of parental attitudes and parental involvement — or at least of an adult close to the student — to educational outcomes. Now, Australians, for example, will do anything for a tax break. How about a modest tax break for anyone whose child meets this year\'s standard improvement? Or a chance to win a fabulous prize? Or a Dan Murphy\'s gift voucher? (I\'d be pushing my kids hard for that one.) And what about a Christmas voucher for the kids themselves? And finally, let\'s have a bonus for the successful teacher. And that\'s just for financial incentives, I have a couple of further suggestions.


First, make Indonesian the first Asian language. It is easy, it uses the Roman alphabet, it is not tonal, and its similarities to European languages sometimes surprise me, while yet introducing certain common Asian features such as counting words (\'There are three persons of doctor and five tails of cow in the yard\'). Also, travelling to Indonesia is cheap and easy and Australians will go there without being pushed (\'I\'ve been to Bali too\').

Second, set the bar for each step not too high. Make it achievable for average students. Third, have the actual testing done by a centralised, independent, national body. Frankly, I\'d consider getting ETS in Princeton to do it — they have the expertise. This means there is no potential conflict of interest for our bonus-hungry teachers.

Fourth, provide online edutainment which stores results, perhaps allows the students to compete with or otherwise compare themselves to their friends, and allows the teacher to monitor their students\' progress. Fifth, give out \'Best and Fairest\' and \'Most Improved\' prizes in the form of family holidays or school excursions to Indonesia. Rinse and repeat: perhaps Chinese or a language of one\'s own choice should be next?

I am well aware that all of this is going to be very expensive. But we can afford to do it — we can afford a lot of things if we cancel the expensive Collins II disaster-in-waiting and instead buy much cheaper yet high-quality submarines off-the-shelf from Europe. If we as a nation are serious about our future, then we will need to pay the price to create that future. I for one would like to see us become the sophisticated, international, overachieving Huguenots rather than the \'white trash\' of Asia. Can we really afford not to do it?


31 Oct 2011 11:13

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. [fold]

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.



31 Oct 2011 16:15

Two more contributions to add to our debate thread on this subject. Below, an email from former diplomat and Bahasa instructor Trish Hamilton. But first, Martin from Canberra writes:

 I hate to sound like a pessimist about Andrew\'s post on the importance of Asian language education, but as somebody who graduated with a major in Chinese around ten years ago, I regret to say that it has probably been the least useful of my qualifications.

As an undergraduate, I (along with most of my classmates) had aspirations to join the foreign and security policy establishment at DFAT, Defence or ONA, using our knowledge of Chinese and China to shape Australia\'s engagement with China.

It simply didn\'t happen. Many of my classmates and I have since moved into various areas of the bureaucracy around Canberra, coaxed away from our preferred subject area of East Asia by better money and easier promotion opportunities in other \'less glamorous\' departments where an ability to speak Chinese is almost irrelevant.

I\'m sorry to say that unless my son demonstrated the fantastic grades usually necessary to score a DFAT graduate position after graduation, if he suggested to me that he was considering studying Chinese at uni, I\'d probably say \'fine son, after you\'ve finished an economics degree.\'

Trish Hamilton: [fold]

I totally agree that it\'s principally a matter of demand. And more has to be done than try and beat up \'interest\' through feel-good community programs. Kids will be interested — but only if it seems worth the enormous amount of sustained effort involved.

For one, educators have to look seriously at streaming true beginners from de facto native speakers of Asian languages for teaching and assessment purposes. As I understand it, the present situation in schools and universities severely disadvantages the non-native speakers and effectively discourages their participation — particularly in the highly competitive matriculation environment. I simply don\'t understand why this problem is not being actively addressed — unless it\'s out of some sort of perverse political correctness? Whatever the reason(s), it\'s time our education establishment woke up, did some hard headed assessment of real objectives and adopted practical solutions. How hard can it be?

And while we\'re on the general subject, let\'s be clear. We shouldn\'t be wasting time on pipe dreams about universal education in Asian languages. That may well come in time but we can\'t fund it now and the quantifiable results would be patchy to say the least. Whatever is done has to be done properly and professionally and with due regard to achieving high standard results. We need effective instruction by well-equipped teachers for a core group of the brightest and most highly motivated students. 

For instance, why aren\'t we considering an ambitious program of a hiring Asian teachers (on contracts/skills visas) from China, Japan, Indonesia etc to teach in our schools? It\'s the only way I can see to provide the qualified instructors we need; the programs we\'ve seen in the last couple of decades in which Australian teachers given a crash course in an Asian language have taught six to ten year-olds (what exactly???) are nothing less than risible.

Here\'s a another novel idea: scholarships for the best and brightest to study Asian languages at university level. It worked in Menzies\' day (the Oriental Studies Scholarships at the ANU in the sixties and seventies gave us many of  our now aging echelon of Asian scholars and diplomats). Aiming for universality does not get the quality results that the country needs.

Just as background to the above, I should say that, although I spent most of my career in DFAT (with several postings in both Indonesia and China), I started my working life as a university instructor in Bahasa Indonesia — so I have a pedagogical interest in the the subject of language teaching. I also have a strong personal commitment to the larger idea of promoting Asia literacy in Australia — but that\'s another story, or should be. I think too many people confuse the two.


1 Nov 2011 13:49

Kathleen Kirby, Executive Director of Asialink and Asia Education Foundation writes:

Geoff Miller asks if there is a jobs pay-off for Asia literacy? The Australian Industry Group and Asialink undertook a survey this year to better understand Australian business preparedness for doing business in Asia. 74 percent of businesses surveyed indicated interest in expanding their businesses in Asia within 12 months. 56 percent indicated that their Asian operations were already highly or extremely important to them.

However business acknowledged that the opportunities offered by the Asian Century will not materialise by themselves. Respondents told us in no uncertain terms, that their prospects in Asia are strong but there are large gaps in their experience and skills. For example, more than half of Australian businesses surveyed that currently operate in Asia have little Board and senior executive experience of Asia and or Asian languages.

Australian business with Asia is no longer limited to the mining boom. In fact the Asialink Index: ANZ Services Report 2010 shows that the Services sector is our most rapid area of growth in international trade — with trade between Australia and Asia greater than with the rest of the world combined. Hard to see how education, transport, finance and business services will flourish with no Asia literacy.

Readers may be shocked to know that currently fewer than 6 percent of Australian Year 12 students study an Asian language. And in Mandarin, 94 percent of Year 12 students are of Chinese background — leaving a scant 300 students nationally each year learning Chinese who are not of Chinese heritage. In Indonesian, we are shedding 10,000 students a year for the past five years. By 2020 we will have no students studying Indonesian at Year 12 if this pattern continues.


Then there is the issue that the push for Asian languages and Asia knowledge in schools is not driven solely by a push for more jobs. School education has a wider brief than that. It aims to build the social capital of our nation and equip our young people to be confident and successful local and global citizens in their increasingly interconnected world. Young Australians who possess a regional and global mindset and skill set will be better equipped to build a creative, prosperous and socially cohesive Australia and develop harmonious regional and global communities that can work together to resolves the issue that effect us all. In most comparable education systems around the world today most students exit schooling bi or even trilingual and intercultural understanding is a priority core capability.

Andrew Carr makes the good point that we might do better to focus on building demand for Asia literacy than continuing to focus on supply of teachers and programs in our schools. I agree that we do need demand to support supply. In fact \'Building Demand\' is one of three key areas of action in the Federal Government\'s current National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP).

The trouble is that its not either/or. No point in building demand if there is not the supply of teachers and schools to service it. Building supply in school education cannot be achieved without long term planning and investment. So please, lets not say that \'the market will take care of itself\' once demand for Asia skills is high — unless you are prepared to wait another two or three generations of school children before Asia literacy can be delivered in schools.

Five year-olds starting school in Australia today enter their adult lives in 2025 just at the time China and India are predicted to resume their positions as the world\'s leading economies. Will those young Australians be prepared to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks of the Asian Century? At current efforts, with NALSSP funding set to cease in 2012, the future doesn\'t look too good.


2 Nov 2011 08:29

Philipp Ivanov:

Geoff Miller makes an important point about the necessity (or rather lack of it) for Australia\'s resource trade executives to have Asian languages capacity. An Australian diplomat in one of our key missions in Asia once told me that despite the scale of our resources trade with Asia, it does not generate or require a lot of people-to-people exchanges between suppliers and consumers. That is why our mining majors maintain only a marginal representation in their key Asian markets and require only a handful of Asia specialists to lead and navigate the relationships with the buyers.

The situation is completely different in the services sector including international education and finance. International education sector in Australia (worth $12-15 billion a year) continuously seeks Asian languages speakers to fill in both strategic and operational positions, and it has trouble finding them. Major financial institutions and smaller firms willing to enter Asian markets also feel the shortage.


While I agree with Geoff and Martin that the investment into Asian languages should be considered against the criteria of demand and supply, basing any future Asian languages strategy on employability and utilisation of skills seems quite short-sighted. For every example of irrelevance of Asian language skills for career development in Australia, there is a counter example of how such skills positioned someone ahead of the pack, for example herehere; and here.

It also does not help to explain why, for example, Spanish is the most popular foreign language minor among Australian undergraduates, unless I have somehow missed a recent surge in demand for Spanish speakers in this country. Similarly, a study of economics or business does not necessarily guarantee a job in the Treasury or Westpac. The relationship between academic studies and career trajectories are much more nuanced and complex.

A study of foreign languages should not been seen as a stand-alone discipline, but rather as one of the essential competencies (such as critical thinking, leadership, etc), particularly for university graduates in arts and social sciences. This is a common approach in European and Asian higher education systems.

Another element of any future Asian languages strategy should be a focus on Asia literacy rather than just proficiency in Asian languages. Literacy suggests a broader approach to a study of a country including its history, environment, economy and political system. Focusing our future strategy on literacy and broader area studies rather than the proficiency in a language (which seems to our students as restrictive and unworthy of time and investment) may broaden the appeal of studying Asia and stimulate the demand.


2 Nov 2011 10:21

The point Andrew makes about building demand for Asian language study first is absolutely crucial.

The Gillard Government\'s discontinuation of funding for Asian language teaching in Australian schools last budget laid to rest a 20-year experiment with top-down, government-led Asia literacy. Government-funded teaching of Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Indonesian in Australian schools coincided with a long-run erosion of student interest in studying Asian languages.


The next impulse must come from the grassroots; from curious students asking parents, and parents asking principals, about the languages, cultures and societies of Asia.

But in focusing on the failure of Australian schools to teach Asian languages, we\'re missing the big picture, and probably setting the bar too high. My point is that no Australian school student will be curious about an Asian language while he or she is relatively ignorant about the societies of Asia: their history, geography, politics, economies and so on.

My own education, from year 1 to year 12, contained not one scrap of teaching on Southeast Asia. Not one. No history, geography, society, politics. Imperial China we covered briefly in history, and a smattering of Japan. Perhaps a lesson on haiku. I didn\'t encounter the societies of Southeast Asia until I got to university. And looking around the Australian schools curriculum, it seems that not much has changed in 30 years. We remain focused on Australian and Western history, literature and social studies.

Is it any wonder Australian school students are reluctant to embark on the study of a language spoken by a society they know nothing about? Is it any wonder Australian kids visiting Southeast Asia\'s beach resorts with their parents remain incurious about the societies they\'re visiting?

If we just focus on teaching and learning languages, we\'re setting the bar too high. Let\'s focus on teaching about the societies, histories, cultures, politics and economics of the countries to our north first. I\'m willing to bet that if we do, a grassroots-led demand for access to learning those languages will follow.

Photo by Flickr user Elephi Pelehi.


3 Nov 2011 16:32


Ryan writes:

Firstly, I\'d like to congratulate Mr Carr for his post, and for highlighting the absence of demand for language learners. But I\'d like to perhaps challenge him on his assertion that, if you \'build demand for cultural and social engagement and the language, business and security links will follow.\' 

No matter how much you admire the history, culture or literature of a country, it is hard to argue to someone that they should learn a language when employers don\'t value it. Mr Miller seems to be discussing more entry-level employment, but I think that his point is apposite at the mid and high levels as well. 

Indeed, a cursory glance at the Lowy Institute\'s own webpage appears to support Mr Miller\'s claim that employers themselves seemed to have decided that they don\'t need Asian language skills — of what appear to be 22 full-time staff, 1 is fluent in an Asian language. And this is not to pick on Lowy — I\'d bet that this is much, much better than most of our strategic and defence institutions. I don\'t even want to think about what the numbers are for our major banks, mining companies or law/services firms.

Why does this happen? Mainly, because we don\'t preference Asian language skills.


A glance at any public service job advert shows the value of ubiquitous, if nebulous, \'strategic\' skills. And we double down on this with our focus on \'generalism\'. But learning an Asian language requires one to specialise. It requires time in-country. Learning to be literate in Asia requires, usually, specialising in Asia — and this takes time, usually time that people don\'t have.

It\'s much easier to become an excellent economist, strategist or academic in general without being Asia literate than it is to try and keep up with your peers while spending 3 hours a night improving one\'s Japanese honorifics. Young people often have to choose, and they usually conclude that time in-country is less valuable than time in departments/internships/meetings. 

I say this not to start an epistemological debate about the relative value of different types of knowledge. Rather, I say it to make the point that people respond to role models and incentives, and there\'s little incentive in being known as a specialist with cultural and social engagement skills. 

So, as Martin astutely notes, the very linguists we say we need are \'coaxed away by better money and easier promotion opportunities in other \"less glamorous\" departments.\' Underlining this phenomenon is a perception that specialism and cultural and social engagement won\'t get you promoted. Contrary to Mr Carr\'s remarks, I\'m not sure that there\'s any amount of money that will solve this. 

This needs to be addressed head on. More cultural and social engagement may make you more likely to mention Lu Xun as you deal with BaoSteel executives, but it\'s unlikely to make you more employable. And this is what worries me: pleading that we need \'more engagement\' is an example of exactly what Mr Carr appears to be railing against. It\'s wanting to do something rather than nothing but not actually addressing the problem.

Instead, as Mr Miller argues, we need to have a serious conversation. It\'s a matter for senior management in the public and private sectors to decide whether speaking an Asian language is valuable enough to warrant investment or a change in hiring criteria. The issue is not a shortage of ideas.

There are a number of examples of how this could work — mandating foreign language skills for senior positions in the strategic/foreign policy firmament, for example. I\'d argue that Mr Rudd\'s recent decision to choose fluent speakers to be ambassadors to Beijing, Tokyo and Jakarta will do more for boosting Asian language demand than any new language training centre or history program. 

And more examples are easy to think of: a concentrated movement by managers to make clear that they regard multilingual work as part of being \'strategic\' (or insert one\'s favourite buzzword here). Or a competitive program that trained people in a foreign language either here or abroad (similar to the Wilson Scholarships offered by the ANU in conjunction with the public sector).

These things would all cost money, be confronting (particularly given how few of our leaders speak other languages) and take talented people offline. They\'d also mean that we would be preferencing specific skill sets instead of nebulous strategic thinkers. But these sorts of shifts in incentives are what is necessary to boost demand — not more cultural and social engagement. The question is whether this is what we want. And this, as Mr Miller rightly notes, is the difficult conversation we need to have.

Photo by Flickr user thinkglobalschool.


4 Nov 2011 09:33

Tim Lindsey is an ARC Federation Fellow and Director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.


It\'s been coming for years, but it looks Australia\'s Asia literacy wipe-out may now have arrived.

In October, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that NSW has just reported its lowest proportion ever of students enrolled in a second language – 9% of 72,391 HSC students. Of these, French was most popular, with 1471. Japanese had 1376 and Chinese 1091. Indonesian had just 232 and Hindi a mere 42.

These depressing stats reflect the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations\' own assessment last year that Korean was all but gone from our education system, Indonesian was likely to be gone in eight years, and Japanese is falling fast. Chinese is growing, but overwhelmingly it is taught to ethnic Chinese. There are a few universities where Asian language enrollments are picking up a little, but most of the new students are Asians, and it remains to be seen if this a trend or a blip.

Non-language Asian studies are in an even worse state. Efforts that began in the 1970s to mainstream Asia in schools and universities have largely failed. Outside marginal \'flags and food\' events, most kids are never really exposed to the region that gives the \'Asia Century\' its name.

It is surely a no-brainer that Asia literacy is essential for trade and security as power and wealth move from the US and Europe to our near north. Yet fewer kids now study Indonesian (to give one example) than in the 1970s, when the White Australia policy was in place – and that\'s in absolute numbers, not percentages.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Australians want returns from Asia without putting effort into it. [fold]

As I have written repeatedly, we see Asia as a market, not an investment (and that is true of many of our universities too, who expect to survive on Asian student fees without investing in Asia expertise among their staff: so much for \'globalism\'!). Any business person will tell you that if you don\'t invest in your market you will end up without one. That is the risk Australia faces.

The usual solution is to rely on Asians who speak English, often expressed in the embarrassing neo-colonial trope, \'aren\'t they all learning English anyway?\' (once heard from a current minister, sad to say). Yes, many Asians are learning English, but most are not.

In any case, the fact that our polylingual and culturally nimble competitors speak our language and we cannot speak theirs is surely no consolation at all. How will we manage the sensitive (and highly competitive) political, strategic, commercial, inter-religious and inter-cultural negotiations with our Asian neighbours that will determine success in the turbulent century ahead if we operate from ignorance?

Sadly, the bad news from NSW is part of a stream of similar stats that suggest these arguments have been lost. It seems clear that the market has failed to provide Australia with the Asia skills it needs.

This means that, like it or not, rebuilding Asia literacy must depend on market intervention – in other words, major federal government investment in schools, universities and the community. To revive dying Asia literacy, a wide range of strategies are needed, from bribes like matriculation, HECS and EFTSU bonuses and so on, to long-term support to retrain teachers who have been forced out of Asia teaching, among many others. 

And that support must be consistent over at least two decades if rebuilding is to have chance. NALSAS got eight years before it was chopped by the Coalition government. Rudd\'s (much smaller) NALSPP got just four years before Labor declined to renew it. This unpredictability has left many school principals reluctant to invest in Asia again.

And of course all this ignores the other argument: Asia literacy is not just about our trade and security. We, alone of all Western countries, are located in one of the most exciting and stimulating parts of the world, with fabulously rich artistic traditions and cutting-edge modern cultures. Asia is funky! It is a place to love and be stimulated by, not to loathe and fear. It is deeply sad that we are missing out on this, and strangling ourselves with parochialism. It impoverishes us – and it is probably the main reason for the lack of popular in interest in Asia literacy.

Doing something about this is, however, even harder than fixing education, as it means shifting rusted-on Australian attitudes and more than just a hint of some nasty old racist ideas, all too often strengthened by entrenched media habits of presenting Asia as a horror story. The solution to cultural engagement therefore probably lies with the next generation, and that, again, means a long-haul investment in education. 

But don\'t hold your breath, and don\'t be deceived by rhetoric. There is no sign in Canberra of any serious interest in major funding for Asia literacy. Will Ken Henry change that when he produces his report next year? You better hope so...

Photo by Flickr user Renato Ganoza.


4 Nov 2011 12:00

Cameron Crouch writes:

A quick thought in relation to The Interpreter\'s ongoing debate about Australia\'s Asia literacy: do advances in machine translation reduce the need for Australians to learn Asian languages? The notion that Google Translate can already speak \'57 languages as well as a 10-year-old\' is surely going to affect the cost-benefit calculations of your average student — particularly given the significant and ongoing investment required to learn a second language.


7 Nov 2011 11:32

Aidan Dullard:

Cameron\'s point about the increasing sophistication of technology like Google Translate is often seen as the death-knell for professional translators and interpreters; as machine translation gets more accurate and more widely available, the need for human translators will supposedly diminish. As a student of Asian languages, I\'m not so much worried at the job-destroying part of machine translation\'s potential, but its usefulness. While the technology certainly isn\'t there yet — my personal experience with Google Translate using Japanese and Chinese has turned up some very weird results — the potential is very exciting. Google\'s methods (using statistics and probability to gauge meaning and a gigantic database of bilingual documents to \'train\' their system) works much better than many previous efforts and will presumably become even more accurate and expansive in the future.

But I\'d argue that because it\'s dependent on a finite bunch of bilingual words and phrases, machine translation as we understand it today will never have the flexibility or skill at interpreting context of a human. Machine translation is excellent at getting the (somewhat garbled) gist of a foreign language document, and even better with smaller words and phrases, but for face-to-face conversations, not to mention official documents or business meetings, a human thinking on their feet and with knowledge of idioms and the cultural context couldn\'t be matched by a machine at this stage — and possibly never will be, without genuine artificial intelligence.


Many contributors to this debate have mentioned the difficulty of learning Asian languages as a reason for their declining demand; I\'d suggest that, rather than threatening future employment prospects, Google Translate and its ilk actually make eventual mastery of these languages much easier. Looking up a word takes seconds on the internet rather than minutes flipping pages, and a smartphone with a database of thousands of words is, after all, a lot less heavy than a paper dictionary.

Finally, I think that even apart from the hard-nosed economic calculations surrounding studying an Asian language, there\'s an enormous personal benefit — and not just being able to read the menu. Understanding languages as part of broader Asia literacy is incredibly important if Australia is to engage successfully and deeply with countries in our region, and for me this would be a compelling reason regardless of the future potential of machine translation technology to replace humans. In the same way that hoping \'everyone else will learn English\' is distressingly parochial, I don\'t think that machine translation offers a panacea, and I\'d suggest that at the very least language skills provide an excellent base for Australians to relate to our neighbours in the so-called Asian century.


10 Nov 2011 09:39

Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy.


There is a critical issue that has so far escaped much attention in the Interpreter debate about declining Asia literacy in Australia – the national security implications.

This is not some abstract debate. In simple terms, the \'Asia literacy wipe-out\' translates to fewer Asia specialists in our national intelligence collection and assessment agencies.

It does not take inside experience, contravention of the Official Secrets Act or great leap of imagination to understand that, in the event of a serious deterioration in our strategic environment, our intelligence agencies are going to be at the forefront of monitoring and reporting developments. At the coalface will be Asia linguists, whether they are proficient in Indonesian, Chinese or Hindi.

In a relatively benign security environment we may be able to muddle through with fewer Asia specialists. Indeed, some parts of the Australian intelligence community (AIC) have experienced shortages of linguists for some time now, the effects of which are difficult to quantify.

Anecdotally (you won\'t find any other evidence), there is no doubt that intelligence collection and analysis suffers with limited langauge skills. Anyone who has worked in the AIC can recount how mediocre language proficiency and a poor understanding of regional socio-political dynamics affects reporting. These cases often become part of the folklore of intelligence agencies and source of great mirth. [fold]

But the realities are more serious. Consider what many believe to be the most pressing strategic challenge facing Australia, the rise of China. How China interacts with other major powers in the region and to what degree it asserts its \'core interests\' in the East and South China Seas will profoundly affect broader regional security and stability.

In an environment of growing uncertainty, the risk of miscalculation is high. An incident of armed confrontation or even the outbreak of war in our region would require the rapid mobilisation of Asia linguists who can translate, analyse and disseminate time-sensitive intelligence reports for government. In the case of Australia\'s direct military involvement, our independent capacity to monitor and analyse foreign language communications would be even more critical. You can bet the intelligence targets won\'t be communicating in English!

Another major terrorist attack involving Australians or unforseen deterioration in Indonesia\'s politico-security situation would also seriously test our capabilities.

Yes, we have been here before, yet we allow Asia literacy to continue to decline. No Australian government likes to be seen as lax on national security. But in fact, both sides of politics have been equally culpable in allowing a vital national security capability to erode.

For the sake of national security alone, Australia must retain a sufficient capacity in Asian language proficiency and expertise. This will require government intervention and support from the private sector and non-government entities. Asia literacy is an enduring national security requirement, whose diminution may seriously test us in years to come. The argument that increasing numbers of Asians speak English just doesn\'t cut it in national security terms, I\'m afraid.

Photo by Flickr user garryknight.