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Reader riposte: Asia literacy about more than jobs

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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 08:29


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

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.

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