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From Hawke to Turnbull: Asian language learning in decline

The number of Australians learning Asian languages is in decline. AAP Image/Dan Peled

The number of students studying Asian languages in Australia has decreased over the past decade, particularly if we consider the number of students from Asian language backgrounds undertaking Asian languages at school.

Labor MPs Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts have recently raised this issue. They write in their new book, Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, that:

Yet, after more than a decade of opinion pieces, there are fewer students studying Asian languages in Australia today than there were in 2000.

They’re not the first to notice the decline, of course. ANU academic Michael Wesley, in his 2011 book There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia writes:

Since Garnaut’s call for Asian literacy in 1989 there has been a relative decline in the numbers of Australians studying Asian languages. While Japanese is still the most widely studied foreign language and demand has surged for Mandarin Chinese, the number of people studying other Asian languages is either stagnant or declining. Schools and universities have reduced their investments in the teaching of Asian languages.

The issue is also raised in the Asian Century white paper:

By contrast the share of Australian students studying languages, including many Asian languages, is small and has fallen in recent times. Between 2000 and 2008, the share of Australian students learning a tertiary-accredited language other than English in Year 12 dropped in a time where overall student numbers increased by almost 9%. In 2008, less than 6% of Australian school students studied Indonesian, Japanese, Korean or Chinese (Mandarin) in Year 12 (AEF 2012, MCEETYA 2008). Fewer Year 12 students studied Indonesian in 2009 than in 1972 (Hill 2012). And, while Japanese remains the most widely taught language in Australian schools, student numbers fell by 16% from 2000 to 2008 (de Kretser & Spence-Brown 2010).

A Grattan Institute study cites the number of students studying an Asian language at 6% in 2011, but also emphasises that many of these students derive from Asian backgrounds.

You need only to look at a map or glance at headlines on the rise of Asian economies to know that learning Asian languages is strategically a good idea for Australia. Yet here we are. So how did we get here?

From Hawke to Turnbull: the learning of Asian languages

In 1987, the Hawke government launched a national scheme to encourage enrolments and the learning of Asian languages. The Hawke government attempted to engage Australian students with their Asian neighbours by encouraging the learning of Asian studies and languages. In 1990, the Hawke government’s adoption of a number of policies and programs supporting Asian studies and languages culminated in Japanese replacing French as the most widely taught foreign language in Australian schools.

The approach to encouraging the uptake of Asian languages continued into 1994, when the Keating government introduced NALSAS. Before the Howard government shelved the initiative in 2002, the numbers of students studying Japanese, Indonesian and Chinese had increased dramatically.

In 2008, the Rudd government attempted to revisit the aims of NALSAS and unveiled the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP). The aim was to raise the rates of “fluent” Asian language learners to 12% of the Australian population. The program ended in 2012 after funding was discontinued: the year before the Gillard government released its final budget.

In 2012, Tony Abbott pledged A$2 billion to the learning of Asian languages and promised to increase the rate of students studying Asian languages to 40%. Now Abbott is gone, it will be interesting to see how Turnbull approaches the issue.

Despite this long history of engagement, Australia continues to have one of the lowest levels of students undertaking study of languages during their school years, when compared to other OECD nations.

More languages, fewer students

The number of secondary school students studying any foreign language during their secondary school years has decreased over the past decade, so it is not surprising to see the rates of Asian language completions also lessening.

In NSW, for example, the number of secondary students studying Asian languages has plummeted over the past decade, falling from more than 1500 in 2000 to just 798 in 2014.

Yet many Asian languages are offered in Australian schools: Japanese continues to be taught widely, with Mandarin, Korean and Indonesian also commonly offered. In Victoria, the only state to have mandated language learning at the primary level, a number of schools also offer instruction and immersion programs for community languages such as Vietnamese and Karen.

The decline in enrolments therefore cannot be attributed to a lack of resources. It’s more likely a result of lack of interest and a perceived lack of value attached to the learning of Asian languages.

Where to from here?

The Hawke government attempted to engage Australian students with their Asian neighbours by encouraging the learning of Asian studies and languages. Decades later, despite decreasing levels of students undertaking Asian languages, maintaining cultural and linguistic connection with our counterparts in the Asia-Pacific region is no less important.

While the study of any language yields great benefits, Australia’s location in the region makes a good argument for the teaching of Asian languages. It’s time to start thinking about making language learning compulsory, emphasising the merits of learning an Asian language throughout the schooling years.

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