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Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Learning an Asian language will change how you think about the world. no_typographic_man

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Today, Dr Yuko Kinoshita looks at Asian languages in Australia, and why we should all try harder to learn them.

Cultural attitudes are crucial for Australia in this Asian Century, specifically, the cultural attitudes of Australian young people.

Be it economics, business, politics, or defence, the basis of any relationship is the people behind it, who are driven by values and beliefs. Individual beliefs about cultural differences have a fundamental impact on our position in the region.

Australia needs people who can face unfamiliar values and practices with a healthy respect and tolerance, not arrogance and fear.

Curiosity and affinity

How do we foster these qualities? Language education, grounded in cultural awareness, has much to offer.

Quality language education is not just about gaining fluency. Rather, it challenges students to think outside their native environment, and to be curious about unfamiliar cultures.

In language study, students learn far more than is being taught. With skill-based training as a launchpad, they get a glimpse of life within a different cultural framework, experiencing affinity with unfamiliar worlds — and people.


In Japanese, for example, we express respect or appreciation to others as an ingrained and important part of communication. Our settings are very different to those of an Anglo-Australian, or of those with other cultural backgrounds.

By learning about these linguistic features of culture, students efficiently develop understandings of the importance of cultural attitudes in society, rather than trying to do this through ethnographic or sociological studies.

In communication practice, students put this understanding into action. They get a living experience which is immediate, deep, and personalised.

Communicating in a language we cannot speak well is a precious experience. Struggling to communicate, feeling inadequate, getting frustrated or even frightened can forge pathways for understanding the experiences of many in our community, particularly those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

This empathy is crucial in engaging with our Asian neighbours, as well as in working together with fellow Australians from Asian backgrounds.

An understanding of the breadth and depth of cultural difference — and the possibility of bridging that gap – is the key outcome of quality language education. And you might become fluent in another language as a bonus.

Languages in tertiary education

With the economic and social importance of Asia giving more reason than ever for quality language education, it is nevertheless becoming more and more difficult to achieve due to the financial pressures at universities.

Language staff are often forced to increase class sizes, reduce face-to-face contact hours, and eliminate continuous assessments — all of which reduce effectiveness.

“Can’t you use modern technologies to deliver the course at a lower cost?” is a popular question from management.


Modern technologies have brought some exciting changes to the environment of language education in the last few decades. “Authentic” materials from each language, such as articles, blogs, and videos, are now at our fingertips. Online exercises and quizzes for students can be set very easily.

While creative uses of these technologies enhance students’ language learning experiences immensely, we cannot rely on them so heavily to develop well-rounded cross-cultural communication competence. To learn to communicate, students need to practice communicating: with humans.

Good language education costs — it cannot be done cheaply.

Sadly, colleagues in universities around the nation are feeling a constant pressure to cut costs and, in languages at least, this directly compromises the quality of education.

National leadership

The Federal Government’s NALSSP initiative (National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program) has successfully increased Asian language education in primary and secondary schools.

In the ACT, for instance, learners of the Japanese language increased by a stunning 254% between 2008 and 2011. Strong national leadership like this can place Australia in a better position in this Asian Century.

At the tertiary level, we must ensure that students who have some experience in Asian languages and culture can further extend their skills and cultural breadth. We should aspire to encourage more students to take up Asian languages and cultural studies.

The current funding model has seen some additional money going to universities who teach languages, but this has not always been directed at the language courses themselves.

We need strong leadership from government. If we want Australia to prosper in the Asian Century, we must fund educational institutions contributing to this goal, and ensure that this funding is tied to the goal.

Learning a language is about valuing and respecting other cultures and, perhaps more importantly, about each of us learning that we are not the centre of the universe.

This is part one of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Ten: Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

Part Thirteen: Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia

Part Fourteen: As Asia faces climate change upheaval, how will Australia respond?

Part Fifteen: How Australia can become Asia’s food bowl

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