A few thoughts on learning Asian languages

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?

Career paths

I never believed in career; now my belief is put to the test.

Until the end of June, I had a great part-time job with the Victorian government. I worked in evaluation and strategy, a stimulating role, and a chance to learn about governance and management. Working for the government aligned with my commitment to the common good. And the conditions of the job – three days a week, with flexible working hours, and a very short commute home – gave me the necessary free time to set up Marco Polo Project in the first place.

This job has now ended. The government decided to cut down 10% of their staff. I was on a fixed-term contract – usual status for recent arrivals. And although I was part of a winning team for last year’s innovation challenge, got in an Asia-leadership program, and can speak Chinese, my contract was not renewed. It seems either the Baillieu government does not actually consider Asian engagement a priority, or there’s a flaw somewhere in their HR system.

In the short term, this leaves me with a problem to solve. I need income. I can’t work full-time and run the Marco Polo Project. And I don’t have much time to filter and apply for jobs.

I therefore started wondering, is there any support group, or official policy, for people like me, to help them find suitable jobs? Melbourne is a creative, innovative city. This is because it has large numbers of artists and social entrepreneurs – many of which work part-time at various jobs. Our activities, although they do not have a direct dollar value, contribute to the general well-being, are a serious argument for tourism, and contribute to talented executives, academics and professionals choosing to settle in Melbourne. We’re contributing significantly to the community, we’ve got skills and we’re happy to work. But we don’t have time to look, and we need flexibility. Would any firm develop an ‘easy job’ sponsorship – where instead of giving a novelist a grant, you give them a front-desk reception job, and access to the building’s rooms after hours? Or is there any business out there who would like to support dialogue and understanding with China, and help the goal by giving me some part-time position?