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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 10:13 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 10:13 | SYDNEY

Should it all be Chinese to us?

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21 May 2008 16:53

Guest blogger: Scheherazade Rogers, a Lowy Institute intern, is undertaking a Master of Translating and Interpreting (Chinese-English)/Master of International Relations at Macquarie University.

A key ambition that emerged from the recent 2020 Summit was to ‘ensure that the major languages and cultures of our region are no longer foreign to Australians but are familiar and mainstreamed into Australian society’. The Rudd Government is putting resources towards this goal with its pledge of $62.4 million for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program, which focuses on the teaching of Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin in high schools.

These are worthy and commendable steps, but the issue is not a simple one.

Some claim that Asian languages are somehow ‘too difficult’ for Australian students. Yet, as David Goodman points out, most of China’s 1.3 billion Chinese people don’t have Mandarin as their mother tongue either. A crucial factor is that they typically begin learning the language while very young and have constant exposure to it.

If Australians began foreign language study at a young age and were given ample opportunities to practice, including in-country experience and interaction with diasporas locally, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t achieve and sustain proficiency. For this reason, some foreign language instruction in primary schools is also well worth considering.

Still, concentrating resources on particular languages — even ones as widely spoken as the major East Asian tongues — might not be the ideal approach for other reasons. Will the focus on just these four send the wrong message to other important countries?  What does this selection say about Canberra’s priorities in international relations? (After all, participants in the 2020 Summit could not agree on a workable definition of Australia’s region.)

With the diversity of cultures represented in Australian society, many second or third generation immigrants might be more inclined to dedicate their study to the languages of their family heritage, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a broader range of bilinguals in Australia. Schools should ideally be able to focus on the high-demand languages in their districts without being excluded from large-scale Commonwealth government assistance, such as that provided under the new program.

In any case, improving students’ knowledge of foreign languages – whatever they might be — is only part of the challenge. It should not be pursued in isolation from much-needed broader efforts to increase their understanding of Asia and international affairs. For instance, there needs to be more scope in high school education for students to participate in (or at least be exposed to) debates on Australia’s role in the region and the world. This, along with language study, will help prepare new generations for the task of ensuring Australia’s future prosperity and security. 

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