Last week I wrote about how Australia’s lack of economic complexity is leading the country toward a possibly perilous financial position. Two of its largest industries — coal and gas — have limited futures, and there are no major exports on the horizon capable of replacing the wealth they generate. While Australia has the potential to produce large quantities of renewable power, the ability to export this energy is not as simple as exporting coal or gas. What Australia needs is a new mode of operation, one it can build from the ground up.
Yet vision isn’t exactly Australia’s strong suit. In 1964, journalist and academic Donald Horne wrote a critique of Australia called “The Lucky Country.” Ironically, the title of the book has entered the Australian lexicon as a phrase used to extol the country’s virtues. Yet this was the opposite of Horne’s intention when he wrote that “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” Rather than knowledge, skill, and imagination, Australia has continued to thrive on little more than good fortune.
Australia has found itself sitting on an endless pile of highly valuable rocks, minerals, and gases, and so it has felt no need to learn to do anything more complicated than simply dig these resources up and put them on ships. The country possesses a geography that has kept it far away from major conflicts and has shared intimate relationships with superpowers, first the British, and then the Americans. These two powers have also seeded the English language as the dominant global lingua franca, allowing Australia to make no effort whatsoever to engage culturally with its own neighborhood.
Yet it is here, with languages, that Australia could start to build the curiosity, ambition, and complexity that it lacks. Unlike the Nordic countries, which have made wholesale native-level fluency in English a national imperative, Australia’s commitment to language learning is weak. This is partly due to a belief that it is not necessary due to English’s global dominance, and partly due to the country simply not understanding either the direct and broader benefits.
Currently only Victoria mandates additional language learning from the beginning of primary school (at age five) through to Year 10 (around age 16). But languages become optional for the final two years of school. Across Australia languages have the lowest final year enrollments of any subject, with less than 10 percent of students studying a language other than English (with a notable gender divide in favor of girls). Many of these students are also those who may be studying the language they speak at home. This is important, but further demonstrates the country’s overall lack of commitment.
Language learning is about more than just being able to communicate in another language. While there is great debate over whether bilingualism enhances overall cognitive ability, it is clear that additional languages provide people with a wider perspective on the world, and a greater ability to understand and comfortably engage with its diversity. Cultural sophistication and economic complexity need to be understood as intrinsically linked.
Despite Australia’s vast multiculturalism – over 300 languages are spoken in the country – the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture remains firmly wedded to a monolingual mindset. This presents problems that are more direct than the ability to broaden the country’s minds and develop the knowledge and skills Australia currently lacks. An inability to engage with trading partners in their own language creates a significant economic deficit, and it is also a serious impediment to bilateral diplomatic relations.
Both of these problems are due to an arrogant expectation that other countries will always “come to us” in English, and therefore learning other languages is superfluous. Yet this perspective doesn’t build intimate and trusting relationships between equals. It projects the idea that Australia sees itself as superior, as a country that has little interest in – or respect for – the culture of others.
Given Australia’s federal structure, and education being mostly the responsibility of state governments, there is an opportunity for Australia to be creative with language learning. For example, students could be taught Bahasa Indonesia in Queensland, Mandarin in New South Wales, and Japanese in Victoria, with fluency in each state’s chosen language being deemed essential by graduation of secondary school. This would significantly enhance the country’s overall capabilities.
Of course, seriously addressing the country’s lack of language skills and cultural sophistication is not a panacea for the structural economic problems Australia will soon face. But it should be deemed part of a suite of far-sighted reforms aimed at addressing the critical shortage of knowledge, skills and ideas within the country — a necessary first step for Australia to acknowledge and accept that it cannot continue to simply effortlessly navigate the world through luck alone.