Asian Languages Losing Their Allure in Australia

It seems that Australia is also experiencing a decline in foreign language learning in its schools.  The languages that are of particular importance in Australia have been Asian ones, like Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian, especially because Australia has many immigrants from these nations and is geographically closer to Asia.  An article in an Australian newspaper reports that between 2000 and 2009 the number of Australian students studying these languages from Kindergarten to grade 12 declined by 22%.  Asian languages are very difficult to learn — even for Asians themselves.  Here in the U.S. there are some immersion programs for elementary school students, for example, in Chinese, but most of the non-Asian students tend to drop out not long after they start because they find it too difficult to learn all the characters.  I just wonder why isn’t it too difficult for Asian students to learn English?  What is it with American or Australian or even British students who can’t manage to learn other languages  that are considered more difficult?  Some people even consider English to be a difficult language to learn!  I have been learning Japanese (in what spare time I can find!) and although it is difficult, it is rewarding and fun!  I even was able to use what I had learned in my  trip to Japan not too long ago.

Anyway, here is the article in the June 9, 2010 The Australian

SPARE a thought for Kevin Rudd. An Asianist among Asianists, he recently had to launch reports showing how weak Asia literacy is in our schools.

But Rudd is a politician, too, and he projected confidence when he addressed the Asialink Asia Society forum in Canberra last month: “My vision is for Australia to be the most Asia-literate nation in the collective West,” he said.

Yet what he saw in reports on the state of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean was “an alarming 22 per cent drop between 2000 and 2008 in the number of Australian students studying one of these four Asian languages from kindergarten to Year 12”. This was “far worse than feared”, according to the Asia Education Foundation, midwife to the reports.

How to reconcile reality and rhetoric?

Rudd seemed to say that his government had a solution – the 2008 National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program – before it knew the dimensions of the problem.

He gave the impression that no radical new measures will be needed to meet a target that by 2020 at least 12 per of students leave Year 12 “fluent enough in Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean to engage in trade and commerce in Asia or university study”.

Return to reality and visit the Year 12 classroom of the latest language reports. Fewer than 6 per cent of students complete Asian languages in Year 12.

There are few young Rudds deepening their grasp of Chinese as a second language: 94 per cent of these Year 12 students are Chinese born or of Chinese background.

Korean is minuscule. Every Year 12 student has Korean as a first language. Indonesia is supposed to be a giant in our national consciousness; 99 per cent of students who come into contact with the language have abandoned it by Year 12. It faces extinction.

Japanese, by contrast, is a success story in that it seems to be the one Asian language with healthy enrolments of otherwise monolingual Australians. Yet even here are worrying signs of malaise.

“What really disappoints Asianists is the unfulfilled promise of a Mandarin-speaking PM,” says Phil Mahnken, co-author of the Indonesian report, from the University of the Sunshine Coast.

“Where’s the flair and urgency and spark of the Keating-Evans-Dawkins days that urged on the nation and education authorities and business, week after week, in the press, all springing from Rudd’s 1994 Report [on Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future]?”

What’s now on offer is Rudd’s 2008 program, NALSSP, worth $62.4 million over four years. Murdoch University’s David Hill declares it a failure: “It is not working; and it is not working in my view because it is grossly inadequately funded.”

NALSSP began in 2009 (data from that year feature in three of the language reports), and Hill has been listening carefully as he travels the country devising a national teaching plan for Indonesian at university.

Kent Anderson, director of Asian Studies at the Australian National University, says NALSSP must be given time to work. He says educational benefits typically lag investments by five years.

But the shortcomings of the latest Asia uplift program are much less startling than the classroom glimpse afforded by the language reports.

At latest count, there were 84,000 school students taking Chinese, the kind of number that might be intoned in yet another sermon on Australia-China relations. By Year 12, however, 94 per cent of students are lost to the language. Almost all those who remain speak Chinese at home.

Calculations about effort, reward and university entrance scores have a fair bit to do with the decision to persist, or to give up.

Like any language, Chinese is accorded a mere 500 hours of instruction for the period of secondary school. But Chinese is not any language. Tones and characters are among the challenges for English speakers, as Jane Orton, director of Melbourne University’s Chinese teacher training centre, explains in her report on the language.

For a good Anglo student, 500 hours of French may be enough to approach the level of a classmate from a French background. “By Year 12, the same diligent, reasonably bright [second language] student has the Chinese characters of a Grade 1 student in China: they can’t compete,” Orton writes.

Her conclusion is stark: unless the imbalance in school Chinese can be corrected, there is “little point” in planning to recruit more students to the language.

Orton says the system – streaming, curriculum and assessment – has to be recalibrated.

As things stand, she says, those who speak Chinese at home may learn nothing useful in class, and they “overwhelm” Anglos in assessment.

Compare this with the state of Japanese which, according to the report devoted to this language, has students from a broad cross-section of society.

“Japanese is therefore regarded by students as a normal or typical mainstream school language,” write the authors, Anne de Kretser of the Melbourne Centre for Japanese Language Education, and Monash University’s Robyn Spence-Brown.

“In terms of ensuring that more Australians gain the benefits of learning a foreign language, this is an important advantage, as many students are deterred from language study if they perceive that they will need to compete with peers with a background in the language.”

But students of Chinese and Korean background, au fait with character, are increasingly keen on Japanese.

“If its particular popularity among Asian-background students is starting to threaten the perception of Japanese as a subject that students of all backgrounds can and should study, and can compete in fairly, then this is something that authorities need to be aware of and counter,” the authors write.

Before the mantle of Asia’s economic miracle passed to China, Japanese enjoyed spectacular growth in Australia’s schools.

Since 2000, however, the number of students has fallen by 16 per cent, and more steeply still at primary school. De Kretser thinks this is mostly due to the general malaise affecting languages, relegated as they often are to so-called “non instructional time” when the classroom teacher is away.

But other influences in the decline say something about the effect on language policy of mercantile and geopolitical fashion.

According to de Kretser, there are new schools preferring Chinese programs to Japanese, while some parents who might once have urged a child to take Japanese for employment now see the appeal of European languages.

“Japan has lost ‘visibility’ in an economic sense,” de Kretser says. “In the 1980s and 90s we heard that many parents wanted their children to do Japanese because of the perceived advantages for their future.

“Now that that doesn’t seem to be on everyone’s mind [or] in the media, the ease of other languages has become more attractive.”


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