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Asia Literacy – redefining the middle ground between language and culture education (part 1)

By Stanley Wang - posted Wednesday, 6 February 2013

It has now been a few months since the release of the "Australia in the Asian Century" White Paper which had bombarded the media with titles about the new language plan such as "PM's plan for every child to learn an Asian language" and "Get ready to learn Hindi: education in the Asian century". As an Asian language educator, I continue to wait patiently for more clarification on what 'access' and 'encouragement' of Australian students in learning one of the newly defined 'priority Asian languages' would look like. But meanwhile, if we look beyond the language politics, it is clear that a consistent emphasis has been placed on Asia Literacy for both present and future Australians, whether it is through the teaching of Asian languages or Asian Studies across both the primary and secondary school curricula. While reflecting on my own level of Asia Literacy, recently I began to wonder if my Taiwanese heritage and proficiency in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean were really enough to qualify me as an Asia Literate teacher. If not, what does Asia Literacy really mean and how should I teach 'it' to my students?

In Part I of this discussion, I address the issues I see in the current definition of Asia Literacy, and provide a framework for tracking the current debate. In Part II, I will dig deeper into my proposed framework and offer an alternative approach with considerations for teaching that I believe is the heart of Asia Literacy.

As consistently highlighted in various submissions to the consultation for the white paper, Asia Literacy needs to be regarded as more than just proficiency in an Asian language. In fact, from my own experience of teaching in schools, such a vision is virtually unattainable in Australia. While many language teachers blame the lack of success on our crowded curriculum or the complex nature of these priority Asian languages, we know from the experiences of the EU, US, and Canada that active multilingualism could be fostered despite the challenges that are faced by all nations. In contrast, what Australia lacks is a consensus on the value of multilingualism and a leading majority which actively seeks to become multilingual. Despite being one of the most linguistically diverse continents in the world, our celebration of multilingualism never seems to extend much beyond a tokenistic rebranding of efforts by non-Anglo immigrants, indigenous Australians, and their descendants in maintaining their links with their cultural heritage.


In considering a definition of Asia Literacy on the other extreme of the language-culture spectrum such as "the capacity to reflect upon and explore cultural differences in the Asian region" (see Asia Literacy Teachers' Association of Australia), one cannot also help but wonder if this skill alone is sufficient or acquirable without any knowledge of a language for accessing the region. Furthermore, given the vast amount of research available in Sociolinguistics, it should be no surprise to any reader that language and culture are inevitably linked, but the question of how they are linked, especially in our curriculum, remains debatable.

In recognition of the struggle between language and culture in defining Asia Literacy, the Asia Education Foundation (AEF) proposes that by the end of secondary schooling, Asia Literate students should to be able to

speak an Asian language and all young Australians will have foundational and deep knowledge, skills and understanding of the histories, geographies, arts and literature of the diverse countries of Asia.

With this proposed definition, it is difficult not to take a pessimistic view on my own qualification as an educator, since not only can I not demonstrate deep knowledge, skills and understanding for the diverse countries of Asia, the extent to which I can agree with my ability to 'speak' an Asian language does also change based on the context and level of self-discipline I choose to enforce at a given time. Nonetheless, my real dissatisfaction with this definition does not lie with the somewhat unrealistic expectations on both my students and myself, but the treatment of language and culture as two isolated areas of study that happen to complement one another only on a geopolitical basis.

This approach to Asia Literacy has inspired me to organise my reflections in the following frameworks which takes into account the complex link between language and culture. I argue that firstly, any policy could appear biased towards the teaching of one or the other on a surface (or economic) level. Hence, each approach could be seen as predominantly teaching language or culture. I then offer two models for embedding language and culture in our curriculum: the 'with'model and the 'through' model. This framework naturally provides four unique approaches to evaluating the state of Asia Literacy education, which I believe can help us refine our definition of Asia Literacy.

1. Teaching language with (some) culture


2. Teaching culture with (some) language

3. Teaching language through culture

4. Teaching culture through language

The two approaches under the 'with' model treat language education and culture education almost in isolation of each other, in much the same way I argue the white paper has outlined its proposed curricula. These approaches seem to suggest implicitly that Asia Literacy encompasses two separate elements that could be achieved separately, as commonly seen in the incoherent structure of 'culture notes' across chapters of a language textbook. In fact, a similar note could be made about the specified domains within the current Victorian LOTE curriculum. While we can probably all identify someone who stands out in one area but not the other as support for the 'with' models, I argue that deep knowledge, skill and understanding of Asia could only be attained if teachers were to teach culture through language. In other words, language and culture must be delivered through the lens of one another. How that looks in the curriculum design and classroom practice will be discussed in Part II.

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About the Author

Stanley Wang is a second-year Teach For Australia Associate teaching Chinese and Humanities at Charles La Trobe P-12 College in Melbourne, and a non-resident tutor for Chinese and Japanese at International House, the University of Melbourne. He is also currently serving on the committee of the Chinese Language Teachers' Association of Victoria.

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