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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:


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:


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.