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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 09:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 09:42 | SYDNEY

Do Australian schools teach our kids anything about Southeast Asia?

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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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2 November 2011 10:21


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

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.

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