The recently published Asian Century White Paper has caused a remarkable number of comments in the Australian press and blogosphere – a lot of them about the question of ‘Asian language learning’. I thought I should add my voice to the chorus, and bring a Continental perspective to the question. After all, I taught languages and linguistics for years, I should claim some expertise on the question. So for what it’s worth, here’s my plan to save the world
1) Make language education compulsory
In continental Europe, in most of Asia, and I believe in Latin America, learning a foreign language is compulsory. Yes English is the world language, and yes you can get away with others learning it. But you can also do your bit, and learn. And when I say ‘compulsory’, I’m not talking about a quick dip in year 7 or 8, but 4 hours a week from year 7 to 12. It’s gonna cost money, true. But isn’t Australia rich? And shouldn’t we prepare for the Asian century? If it’s important, I reckon we should pay for it – why not set up an Asian language tax? Maybe from all that iron we ship out up there…
2) Teach more than one foreign language in high-school
In Europe, all students take a second foreign language in high school, for at least a couple of years. Many choose to keep it as an option until year 12. We could keep it optional in Australia, but hey, learning Mandarin and Japanese in parallel makes sense: both languages share a common writing system, and trilingual speakers of English, Mandarin and Japanese (or a lot of other combinations) would be great profiles for an ‘Asia-focused’ role. Beside, the more languages you learn, the easier it gets. So why not think boldly, let’s not paste a layer of Asian language onto the kids, let’s bring up a generation of proper polyglots.
3) Make language count as bonus points
OK, this one is to counterbalance the radical sounding previous two. It’s an idea inspired by the French foreign service exam. For a future diplomat, mastering numerous foreign languages, even at intermediate level, is an advantage. Beyond the compulsory two languages for the foreign service exam, candidates can take an optional exam in as many languages as they wish, and all points over the pass mark will count as bonus towards their overall result – meaning these languages either do not affect or improve their average score. This could be applied in Australia for all Asian languages in the end of high-school exam, and help solve the problem of heritage versus non-heritage speakers. Heritage speakers would get more bonus points, true, but those who take Chinese as an option would still get possible bonus points over those who take a European language, or no language at all. Wouldn’t that be an incentive?
4) Accept and acknowledge failure
Not all students who take an Asian language will become fluent. Actually, the majority will never come near fluent, and many may not even go beyond a stuttering beginner’s level. Does that mean we shouldn’t even start? Asian languages are difficult, and when you teach something difficult, you must accept that many will fail to reach high standards. How many violin students produce anything like a decent sound? At least, they develop an ear for music. Even a smattering of Chinese or Indonesian will make students more appreciative when Asian migrants, clients, partners, visitors, collaborators, speak to them in not-perfect English. And even if they fail to become fluent in the language, they will at least understand the culture better. Beside, many will fail, not all. If every kid in Australia was to take an Asian language, and, say, 5% ended up fluent, 15% fairly proficient, and another 30% could somewhat manage a simple conversation – these are not unrealistic aspirations – yet wouldn’t that already make a huge difference?
OK – that was my early proposal for an Asian-language-speaking Australia. What’s yours? Or have we given up already?