Australia’s Foreign Language Deficit

With the country increasingly engaged with Asia, can it generate more interest in Asian language study?

Australia’s Foreign Language Deficit
Credit: Japanese language via Shutterstock.com

Even as Australia steps up its engagement in the Asia-Pacific region few Australians are learning languages that reflect their place in the Asian century. Currently 12.8 percent of students in year 12, their final year of schooling, take a foreign language. About 5.8 percent are studying an Asian language

The Diplomat recently spoke with Professor Joseph Lo Bianco, who is a professor of Language and Literacy Education at Melbourne University and a former director of the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia, about what needs to be done to address Australia’s language education issues.

Why is it so important for Australia to re-direct its language education towards Asia?

I wouldn’t put it like that. I don’t think we need to redirect our language education towards Asia because already the majority of language students take Asian languages. Around 12 percent of Australian students do a language study in their final year of high school, but a much higher proportion study languages during the compulsory school years. About half of final year students study a priority Asian language. Since 1990 Japanese has been the most widely studied language, so it’s not like most people do French. What we have to do is get many more students to take languages. The problem is that so few students at year 12 that have any language at all. So frankly you could increase the numbers doing Italian, Spanish, German and French and it wouldn’t be a problem. What we need to do is have more students doing languages and obviously many of those should be Asian languages.

Of those doing languages at year 12 how prominent are Asian languages?

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The majority of the candidates in year 12 are doing Japanese, the next language would be French, then Indonesian, then possibly German, so there is a fair distribution. We don’t need everyone to do Asian languages; we need a spread of languages. English is a very important language worldwide, it gets people around. However we need to be able to enter other people’s communities and societies on their own terms and that means knowing their languages. Obviously most of our trade and commercial relationships are with Asia so we have to focus very heavily on understanding our region and the countries in our region better.

Why is there such low interest in foreign languages in general compared to other countries?

If you look across the world in English-speaking countries they really struggle to get languages taught, but in non-English speaking countries there is an immense amount of language, often including English. So it is because English is like an auxiliary language across the world. Bulgarians who study English as a second language imagine they will be able to use it in Zimbabwe, in Thailand, in Singapore and Japan.

So while English does have this ability, the problem that this produces is a laziness and complacency about language studies. People think that if English has this function in the world why should I learn other languages? So that causes a big problem for us because we do need other languages. While English does have this capacity, it limits you to just certain kinds of functions. We need to know societies well. Imagine trying to know Chinese society just through English? Sure English allows you to get into hotels and get through maybe airports and things like that but it won’t help you with many things in China.

How important is that? Say for companies wanting to do trade in China to know Mandarin?

I think it’s very important. I’m not trying to say that every single person has to have a language. A company trading in China should have on its team or available to it people who are very good at reading Chinese to understand contracts, read materials, understand publicity, reports, to read newspapers. Then of course it would be good if everyone on the team had some Chinese to understand conversations, but that’s not to say that everyone has to be on an equal level. You have to be strategic about these things. We can’t just do our trade with one country – we have to diversify. It’s a very unhealthy economic relationship for any country to depend on one product or one destination. We have to diversify, especially small countries, the history of economies is that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. That said, whatever happens China is going to be very important to us for a long time and we have to know the place better.

Looking at countries like India, where there is a high level of English, is it a situation where learning Hindi is something that is helpful and appreciated still?

Yes, definitely. When you’re looking at a place like China where English is a foreign language, English isn’t a foreign language in India, it is a second language in the country, it is a very important distinction. In Japan and Korea, English is the main language taught in all of those countries.  There are 200 million people learning English in China or more, it’s compulsory in all the schools. To get in to college – even if you have to be a veterinarian in some place where you are never going to meet English-speaking people – you have to pass the English test to get into veterinary studies. English is very well established in all of North Asia as in other parts of the world. But that doesn’t actually mean people use it on the streets or in their own homes. So you can’t move into a situation like that and expect that while they have may have studied English to be anything but annoyed if you expect them to use it when you go to their country.

Why is Australian education performing badly? Is it a situation where more engagement at an earlier level of schooling is needed?

We have to avoid the idea that this issue is new – it has been a long term problem. We have tried lots of things in the past. We have to avoid a narrow policy that just picks a few languages and focuses on them. We have to have a broad range of both European and Asian languages. The second thing is that we have to start in primary school, but we can’t do superficial programs. In the 1990s we had a huge amount of money for Asian languages and we had lots of programs set up in primary schools across the country. After eight or nine years most of them closed down, because they were very superficial programs. If kids don’t really learn well in those programs, if you rush to have a Chinese program because you have to have one, it isn’t actually helping. Yes you have to start in primary school but it has to be done properly. We have done this before and this hasn’t worked because the programs have been superficial.

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How do you go about that? Is it a situation where bringing in teachers from other countries will help?

Bringing in foreigner nationals to teach languages here won’t fix the problem either. They have to be teachers who know how to teach well in the Australian context. Of course there is a place for foreign teachers but they can’t be the majority. What you have to do if you really want to fix the problem is to teach other content in foreign languages. Parents aren’t ready for this, because if you start teaching half the curriculum in Chinese a lot parents won’t want this, they think that their children’s English will suffer. So we have to go about it and encourage people to see that the evidence is that the kids will be ok learning subjects in other languages. The last thing our government should do is go for a quick fix by bringing in lots of teachers from overseas because it has been tried before and it hasn’t worked.

Is there the political will for the changes needed in regards to education?

The current federal government seems to be interested in languages too and is pushing it. By setting the kind of objectives that they have, about getting 40 per cent of students learning a language in year 12 by 2024, I think they are setting themselves up to fail. Looking at the numbers of students learning languages and where they want to get the languages to I don’t think they will get it. You could achieve these numbers with superficial programs but honestly I’d rather it if they didn’t. Learning a language is not an easy thing to do, you need a lot of time and investment – I’d much rather they did it carefully and properly. Quick fixes will last five minutes.