Asian language support lagging in Asian Century discussion

Ken Henry’s white paper on Australia in the Asian Century will be released this Sunday. AAP

Asian language studies should be front and centre in the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, say experts, with worrying declines in Asian language studies putting Australia at a disadvantage.

The government-commissioned white paper, authored by Ken Henry, is being released on Sunday and is expected to recommend greater integration with Asia, including benchmarks for coming decades.

But language experts say there has been a lack of bipartisan political support for language studies, which are critical to our role in the region.

“It would be an unimaginable oversight if the white paper fails to note the primacy of our language skills,” said David Hill, professor of southeast Asian studies at Murdoch University.

“The government’s got ample evidence of the importance of language learning and the importance of this to our future,” Professor Hill said.

“What is lacking is serious bipartisan political commitment to the implementation of recommendations from a string of reports.”

Professor Hill cited Michael Wesley’s report from 2009 that argued Australia needed half of the population to be fluent in an Asian language within 30 years or risked falling behind other countries.

Despite this report, Professor Hill said the government dropped the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program, a program it committed some $A62 million to in 2008.

“There’s been no serious attempt to replace that with a language strategy in schools, and there’s just been a hiatus for the last 18 months to 2 years on this issue. It’s just been abandoned by the Labor government,” Professor Hill said.

Business group CPA Australia this week released the results of a survey showing Australian respondents placed a relatively low level of importance on bilingual staff, while overseas respondents generally rated Australia as relatively poor in its knowledge of Asia and its languages.

CPA Australia wants the government to fund a review into making the study of Chinese language compulsory in all Australian primary and secondary schools.

This could prove extremely challenging said Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian languages and studies at Monash University.

“One of the problems we face is a shortage of good teachers,” Professor Jacobs said.

“Teaching a language badly is almost worse than not teaching it at all.”

Professor Jacobs said the decline of language studies at a university level was a big worry, but added there was strong interest in Asian languages at Monash, with the university’s Korean studies program thriving.

Professor Jacobs said while it was critical for teachers of Asian languages to bring a knowledge of the relevant culture to their teaching, he would like to see some level of Asian language teaching made available to all students, at both a school and university level.

He reiterated Professor Hill’s view that bipartisan political support was required.

“These aren’t issues which can be solved quickly and they can’t be solved in one electoral term. There needs to be bipartisan consensus.”

Professor Hill said the cost of some programs to encourage Asian language studies, including one he was responsible for on Indonesia, represented a “tiny fraction” of the value of Australia’s direct investment with Asia, or the value of two-way trade.