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Across the curriculum: access to Asian languages isn’t everything

Asian languages are important, but they should be one part of a greater focus on Asia in the curriculum. Asian image from

Despite the breadth of issues in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper released this week, so far the debate has focused largely on language learning in schools. With fewer and fewer students taking up Asian languages at all levels of education this is an important issue.

But there are big questions around whether this focus on access to Asian languages is all that’s needed. And how, in the first place, we can convince young Australians to learn an Asian language. After all, just because school children have access to Asian languages (via the NBN) doesn’t mean they will sign up for them.

The key is to think broadly about teaching both Asian studies and Asian languages at the same time.

Wider focus

First, let’s look at why the focus can’t all be about access to Asian languages. The new, national curriculum has a cross-curriculum priority called “Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia”.

This important statement means teachers should prioritise Asian case studies and examples when developing classroom content. But how this translates into the practical application in schools is important.

There is a concern that principals may guide teachers to think that given the Asian language priority, there’s no need to worry about teaching Asian studies in the rest of the curriculum. But this undermines the aim of the new national curriculum and could work against language learning in the long-term.

If we have good Asian studies examples, students will see the benefit of learning Asian languages as part of their education. Placing Asian case studies in history, geography, even maths, will encourage students to see the importance of Asia and could help increase demand for Asian language learning later on.

This cross-curriculum priority cannot just be words on a page. It will need to fund good programs to encourage teachers to study the dynamic and evolving nature of Asian society, culture and politics.

Asian literacy

So we need a dual focus here, to encourage an understanding of Asia as well as its languages. But that doesn’t mean, like some have suggested that Asian languages aren’t crucial, or that they should remain in the too hard basket.

It can be hard to explain the importance of being able to communicate in another language. More intelligent, eloquent and worldly people than me have tried and failed, but here’s my attempt.

It is a bit like explaining to someone who can’t swim, why they should learn to. The prospect is a bit daunting, particularly if they haven’t learnt as a child. And barring an emergency, if you try hard enough, you can get by on this earth without ever needing to jump in the ocean or swim in a lake. Swimming is also taught at school, despite the fact we are not all going to be the next Ian Thorpe or Stephanie Rice.

Similarly, most of us aren’t going to end up as expert Indonesian linguists or completely fluent in Mandarin. You can avoid travelling overseas to non-English speaking countries, or rely on everyone speaking English when you get there, or even on translation programs when you need. But this seems to me like relying on state-of-the-art life jackets, instead of learning to breaststroke.

Learning a language, like swimming, can be a life-changing experience. And just as most people don’t regret learning to swim, most who have learnt another language and have used that language at some point in their lives don’t regret that either.

As more people learn an Asian language in the Asian Century, they’ll come to see the benefit of this skill, just as we eventually come to see the benefit of attending all those swimming classes.

The challenge ahead

At the front line in this battle is the decline of Indonesian languages and studies in Australia. The white paper singles out Indonesian as one of the four key Asian languages to which students should have access, but how do we encourage Australian schools to sign up for Indonesian?

In NSW public schools, more than 44,000 students were studying Indonesian in 1996. In 2011, that number has been reduced to only 6,000, with only 82 students studying Indonesian language in year 12 last year.

As Professor David Hill’s report has found, at the present drop-off rate, most Indonesian departments at Australian universities will die out by 2020.

It is partly why, when the live cattle dispute erupted last year, we didn’t have many experts on the ground in Indonesia with sound knowledge of the cattle industry. It’s essential that the government implements the recommendations in Hill’s report.

Study support

Long-term support for both Asian studies and languages will be key, as schools and universities won’t bother with difficult change if they think this is a flash-in-the-pan initiative.

As the white paper clearly explains, if we are going to negotiate future challenges, and make the most of any opportunities that might come our way in the Asian Century, we want to give our children the best education to do so.

Implementing long-term programs which support both Asian studies and languages concurrently will give us the best chance of success.

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