Since starting a PhD in February in a different field to my previous work, I’ve been running a weekly alert with the words “language” and “Australia” to see what was around. That’s when I discovered a key theme in linguistics in public discourse in Australia, and that is the need for “Asia literacy”.
Almost every week since February there has been an article, mostly in an Australian media source but also, as in the heading above, from the country’s Asian neighbours in Indonesia and India, lamenting Australia’s declining enrolments in Asian languages. Other headlines read: “Australia needs to break out of language cocoon”, “Loss of Indonesian expertise poses security risk” , “Australia lagging in learning a second language”, “Foreign Affairs staff have a French accent”, “Australia should send Hindi-speaking diplomats to India: Expert”, “Asian literacy critical to children” , “In the right place but lost for words”. This media attention is the result of the commission and imminent release of the Australian Government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Furthermore, significant political figures such as the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his deputy Julie Bishop have made their commitment to Asian language learning public in the last twelve months (“Asian Language Should be Mandatory for Australian Schoolchildren Julie Bishop Says”, “Abbott Accuses Government of Playing Class War Card”).
The same old story
But on closer inspection it seems that this theme is not new. In his book The Politics of Language in Australia Ozolins notes that Asian literacy was first considered a problem by the Australian Ambassador to Japan, Alan Watt, in the 1950s. He was clearly before his time as it was not until the 1990s that the then Labour government committed to Asian languages in the form of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) program. This was then discontinued by the Howard government two years before the funding was supposed to run out. The Rudd/Gillard government reinvented the program as the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Scheme (NALSS) from 2008 to 20012. Both programs focused on four ‘strategic’ languages, namely Mandarin, Indonesian, Korean and Japanese, and the rationale for choosing these languages came directly from figures from the Department of Trade, rather than from numbers of speakers in the community.
Who are the Australians who need to learn Asian languages?
So it seems that suggesting Australians learn another language, and particularly an Asian language, in order to increase our job skills (note the continued focus on the diplomatic service in the headlines above) has a lot of currency in our public discourse today and indeed over the last sixty years. But who are the imagined language learners here? When the numbers of students studying Mandarin is referred to in the debate, there is often reference to the fact that many of them come from a Chinese ethnic background, as though this dilutes the strength of the numbers (e.g., “Australians Falling Behind in Asian Language Education”). Can it be that these young people, whose “ethnic” background should in no way lead us to assume any knowledge of Mandarin, given the diversity of languages in China as well as the diversity of language practices in migrant homes , do not “count” as normal Australians in the debate?
“Ethnic” Asians do not count
Indeed, despite the fact that NALSAS and its successor mention drawing on the considerable population of speakers of the four strategic languages as potential language learners, as Susana Eisenchlas and others have pointed out here on Language on the Move, often this group is seen as a problem for language learning. When Ms Bishop is quoted as saying “It would be a brilliant form of soft diplomacy if we had a large body of people in Australia who were able to speak an Asian language,” my immediate response is that, “Actually, we do! … but they are clearly not the Australians you have in mind!”
Rather than acknowledging the linguistic diversity in Australia (as evidenced by the 2011 census results), this imagined group of learners are homogenous in their English-speaking (Anglo-Celtic?) Australianness . Rather than seeing it as a tale of failure to provide bilingual education for a diverse population, the comments on imagined learners in the Asian literacy debate construct a world of learning which is uni-directional; from the Australian classroom outwards to the world of foreign diplomacy. And rather than building on and supporting the use of these four languages (and others) in many thousands of Australian families, this approach values these skills so little they are not even a salient part of the debate. For those who genuinely believe in more language education in Australia, we must start by acknowledging, appreciating and supporting the diversity of potential language learners themselves, rather than harking back to a mythical White monoculture which masks our true diversity.