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Reversing the trend

By Peter Jones - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2008

"If you don't know foreign languages, you don't know anything about your own language." Johann Goethe.

In a multi-lingual world, yet one where languages are dying out every month, it is essential for Australians to speak a second language, particularly as we face the tyranny of English language imperialism: or should I say, American English imperialism?

I feel ashamed that many students in Europe often speak two or three languages fluently and put our students to shame when they come on exchange visits or to do the International Baccalaureate - especially the Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians. Yet there is a dangerous drift in Australia to running down the teaching of LOTE subjects, despite the publicity generated by a Prime Minister who speaks Mandarin fluently and the advantages accruing to Australia as a result.


My K-12 (and IB) school in Hobart offers two European languages (French and German) and two Asian languages (Chinese and Japanese).

Students in Year 7 get a sample of each then make their choices through to Year 12. If they haven't done a language by Year 11, they can do an “ab initio” course for the IB. Language teaching has certainly improved since I was at school, with emphasis on a national culture as well as the language itself. There is the opportunity to go on school exchanges too as we have sister schools with each of our four language groups. I realise that this is not possible for students from a poorer socio-economic background, but there are often grants available and support organisations to help fund exchanges that involve talented students.

I realise that many students of predominantly European heritage will find Asian languages harder to grasp, but the minority who do have a skill need more encouragement to continue with their studies, and go on to link them with other subjects at tertiary level, like Arts, Commerce, Journalism, International Law, and Asian Studies or International Relations.

In the years ahead, as Australia develops closer ties with South East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, we will need young people with these skills rather than simply expecting everyone else to speak English.

French and Spanish remain international languages as well.

Today about 40 per cent of migrants to Australia come from Asia and may well wish to continue with their languages at secondary and tertiary level if it is tied to other professional courses. The current top ten countries for sources of immigration include China and India, where 40 per cent of the world's population lives. Arabic is also a major language group in Australia, according to the 2006 census, which can be useful as we develop further trade ties with South West Asia.


In Asian cultures the ability to communicate is crucial to building confidence between partners, yet so often we expect everyone else to speak English and rarely bother to learn about religious and cultural issues. It can lead to the kind of embarrassing situation we had some years ago when a federal government Minister offered "to shout beers all round" to a visiting trade delegation from Muslim Arab countries.

On an optimistic note, the 2020 ideas summit called for a radical ramping up of language skills. Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, "We have to make Australia's understanding of Asian culture almost second nature to us". The vision also called for linking young Australians to Asian communities through school partnerships as well as a comprehensive reinvigoration of Asian language literacy.

If the government takes up this challenge it will reverse a dangerous drift to the running down of ESL (English as a second language) and Asian Language and Studies at universities, though language specialists have pointed out that Asian languages with their own "alphabets" are much harder for many Australians to learn than European languages and we cannot expect most young Australians to become fluent in Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Hindi.

At a global level, we have a duty to counter the drift to extinction of so many languages, although some linguists say it is too late to reverse this trend in an age of globalisation. This view will not carry much weight at government level but we can only hope that the Rudd Government will adopt the vision of the ideas summit and seek to reverse the trend of the last decade where language teaching has been run down.

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About the Author

Peter Jones teaches Comparative Religion, SOSE and Asian Studies at The Friends' School in Hobart and the University of Tasmania but admits he only studied three European languages when at high school and one of them was a “dead” language.

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