Asian Language Debate in Australia — at what price?

Bianca Hall for The Guardian, May 12, 2012:

TONY ABBOTT’S plan to boost the study of Asian languages in schools would cost $1 billion to implement, according to a leading Asian languages educator. 

On Thursday night, Mr Abbott said one of his key priorities, if elected, would be to increase the number of high school students studying foreign languages – particularly Asian languages – to 40 per cent within a decade.

”We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians’ study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline,” Mr Abbott said.

But the announcement raised eyebrows among the Labor Party, given that, in 2002, the Howard government axed a successful program that had doubled the number of students studying Asian languages.

The National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools strategy was scrapped eight years into its 12-year cycle.

The executive director of the Asialink and Asia Education Foundation, Kathe Kirby, said based on that program’s costs, Mr Abbott’s policy would cost about $100 million a year over 10 years.

”It will take very significant investment,” she said. ”Right back with NALSAS, when we doubled [the rates] in today’s monetary terms, that was an investment of $100 million a year … If we’re not talking something in that ball park we don’t do it.” 

Mr Abbott said in his budget reply that since 2001 – the year before the scheme was scrapped – there had been a 21 per cent decline in students studying Japanese and a 40 per cent drop in students studying Indonesian. He did not offer a cost for the policy.

The School Education Minister, Peter Garrett, dismissed Mr Abbott’s policy, calling it a ”rehashed announcement” from the 2010 election. 

”There were no details and no dollars, just an aspirational target and a vague intention.” 

The number of students studying foreign languages has plummeted since the cuts, with just 12 per cent of year 12 students learning a foreign language. 

The previous strategy had increased the number of students learning foreign languages to 25 per cent. 

Ms Kirby said it was reassuring to see bipartisan support emerging for Asian languages.

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