Nov 02

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It’s all Chinese to me

The Federal Government’s recently announced White Paper on ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ will probably fail.  This is a shame because we need it to succeed.

The Paper was motivated by the global centre for economic activity becoming more oriental.  Evidently, the centre started somewhere East of Thingummystan (we used to call it Russia) then migrated westward drawn by the wealth of Europe and America.  Somewhere over Whereisfjördur (Iceland), the global economic centre took a U-turn and has been hurrying back to Beijing ever since 1950.  This is good news for Australia.

However, our capacity to enrich ourselves on the spoils of this fiscal migration is unlikely to be helped by trotting out a party trick of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ said in Japanese – this being the only thing remembered from enforced Asian Language classes in the middle school years.  Typically, between 80 to 90 per cent of school students drop their foreign language studies before reaching Year 12.

Yes, there is undoubted cultural enrichment in studying a language, but there is also resentment and frustration if you are not a linguist.  There is some truth in the saying that an educated Australian should not necessarily know an Asian language, but at least they should have forgotten one.  There is benefit in learning an Asian language.  However, cultural understanding can also be fostered through a study of Asian History, Geography and Society.  We need not always rely on ‘heads, shoulders …’

Julia Gillard loves to wave the funding stick to get schools to toe the line.  We’ve seen it with academic improvement, now we’ve got it with Asian languages.  However, the threat would be more persuasive if the $6.5 billion of extra Gonski funding were actually in the hands of schools and able to be confiscated.  (Note to Government – do not confuse aspiration with achievement.)

Poor Ken Henry.  The author of Australia in the Asian Century hasn’t a great track record of success as a Government advisor.  His Tax Review of 2008-2010 recommended 138 tax reforms but the Federal Government has implemented only about six.  Will he do better with orientalising us?   Probably not.  It is one thing for a school to offer a language; it is another to have it accepted by students.  It is one thing to study a language; it is another to learn it.  It is one thing to learn a language; it is another to understand a country.

It has been suggested that it will take about a billion dollars to teach half our children an Asian language.  Ouch!  This will be bad news for the Federal Treasurer who has run out of smoke and mirrors to deliver a surplus budget.

Do not misunderstand this thesis.  Learning an Asian language is a good thing.  It is next to impossible to learn the language of a place without developing an understanding of the place.  But then what?  You must also be creative, resourceful and engaging if you want to do business in Asia.  You must have something to offer other than ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, said in Hindi or Mandarin.

Therefore, we do not just need to teach Asian languages in schools, we need to teach enterprise, endeavour and excellence.  It is our rock, crop and stock that is wanted by Asia, not a linguistic party trick.  It is our product and service that is wanted, not our proficiency in a language.  (They can already speak it.)

So, let’s teach Asian languages in our schools, but to stop it being tokenistic, it must be done properly.  It must also be done recognising that it is but one means of equipping our children to benefit from the aspirant needs of three billion middle-class consumers on our doorstep.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.timhawkes.com/its-all-chinese-to-me/


  1. Bev

    The writer of this article clearly has not visited a language classroom for a very long time. Language programs being delivered today are a far cry from being tokenitic. May I ask your age? When did you last spend any time in a classroom? Your comments are poorly informed.

  2. PA Curtin

    It’s easy to see which side of politics the principal supports.

  3. Rachel

    I’m curious about these 2 comments. How can you argue with “…we do not just need to teach Asian languages in schools, we need to teach enterprise, endeavour and excellence”? I think the writer knows exactly what he is talking about.

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