“Hey, g’day! How y’goin?” A familiar greeting. But this was not in Australia. This was off season in a quieter part of southern China, a couple of years ago. While getting a buzz from the unexpected reminder of home, we were only a little surprised. Anyone travelling around Asia over the last 20 years will have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of young Australian backpackers making their way around, very often to remote regions. The 3 week adventure bus tour of yesteryear has been superseded by a few months, or longer, of roaming, working, lazing, and more roaming, usually with friends.
No longer just silent observers of the exotic, these travellers happily share the privations of the developing world, and relish the close contact with the locals. China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand seem to be the hot spots for young Aussies, some becoming semi-permanent residents, joining or starting a business there. Many are checking-out the world before starting their university studies or while taking a break from them. This is a smart, curious and adventurous group.
Now, a question. How many of these young people in, say, China, are fluent, or near fluent, in Mandarin? I don’t know either, but our observations suggest very few. Although they’re having the time of their lives, imagine how richer the experience would be if they could chat easily with the locals. How many educational, cultural, business and career experiences do they unknowingly pass in their travels because they cannot speak the local language?
Sure, some have studied an Asian language for a year or two at university, which, though useful, normally gives them little more than the ability to engage in small talk. Compare that with German or Swedish tourists here, virtually all of whom can speak fluently in English on any topic you care to raise. Ok, English is an international language, but this has made it too easy to ignore the changing nature of the world. China is now a major economic power and a cauldron of opportunities for young people with the mix of essential skills to seize them; one of which must be the language.
We noted with mixed feelings the announcement by the Prime Minister during his visit to Vietnam in November 2006 that Chinese is now the most widely spoken foreign language in Australia, “An illustration,” he said, “of Australia’s natural, comfortable and permanent part of the Asian region”. Alas, this has little to do with our education system. Most of the speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese in Australia bring these languages with them as immigrants and visitors, and have little support in the formal school system to encourage their children to maintain and develop these valuable linguistic skills – or become literate in Chinese.
How is the education system in the ACT responding to the growing importance of Asia, particularly China? Its report card does not look too good. The number of students studying Mandarin in government schools has fallen from over 1,000 in 2001 to 550 in 2006. And many of the current students are in fact native speakers studying here as international students!
The reduction in Mandarin programs at school level in the ACT has probably been influenced by the abolition of the Federal Government’s National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) program in 2002/3. But it is also symptomatic of the generally low status of languages other than English in schools. A telling example of this is the absence of any reference to learning to communicate in another language in initial versions of the ACT Department of Education’s new curriculum framework currently being trialled. One wonders how this is possible given that languages are supposed to be one of eight key learning areas in Australian education.
All Ministers of Education declared their commitment to promoting languages in a national statement issued in 2005. This statement made clear the immense importance of learning another language – from contributing to general intellectual and educational development and helping promote social cohesiveness to enhancing employment and career prospects; not to mention the advantages of language skills for the country – strategically, economically and internationally. Also, research clearly shows that learning another language can help students improve their literacy skills in English!
Why is the ACT, a diverse, widely travelled, well-educated and affluent community, not leading the way in Australia? It is time to take positive steps to overcome the problems that have beset language programs in the past – lack of quality teachers and programs, little continuity within schools or between primary and secondary programs, and little integration with other areas of the curriculum or with the resources out there in our community in the embassies and homes of the 13% of ACT residents who speak a language other than English with their families.
What is needed is a long term and comprehensive plan that will build on the Territory’s strengths and equip the young people of the ACT with the languages skills they will need in the social and business world of tomorrow. English alone is no longer enough. Learning at least one other language should be an integral part of the education of all young people in the ACT.
We will need to decide which languages to focus on, but Asian languages, particularly Chinese, should be one priority. As the former head of the World Bank said in Australia recently “we must invest in an Asian future”.
The ACT used to lead Australia in many areas, including its education system. It can again show leadership by adopting a far-sighted language policy that will pay handsome dividends, not only to future generations of Canberrans, but to all Australians.
Vice- President, Association for Learning Mandarin in Australia Inc (ALMA)- a non-profit community group – see http://alma.anu.edu.au for details