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Reader ripostes: More on Asian languages


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


31 October 2011 16:15

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

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:

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.

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