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The Asian elephant in Australia’s room

By Nicholas Goodwin - posted Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Efforts to improve Australia’s engagement with the countries of its Asian region have been given a boost with the release of a new strategy by the Griffith Asia Institute. However the strategy will have limited success unless a major rethink is done of how Australia approaches Asia. To do that, Australia must acknowledge and deal with the Asian elephant in the room - lack of public support.

The “Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency” was a recommendation of the Australia 2020 Summit held in April 2008. Griffith’s Michael Wesley led the international stream of the Summit, chaired by Prime Minister Rudd.

Like those before it, such as the 2002 Asian Studies Association of Australia’s report Maximising Australia’s Asia Knowledge, the Griffith strategy is an ambitious plan for a major new investment in our Asia related skills. It sets out a long term (30-year) investment of A$11.3 (US$8.8) billion to ensure half of Australia’s population is competent in an Asian language. The central element is the creation of a National Asian Languages Institute, to be based in Canberra with branches in every state and territory, to oversee funding and standards.


The strategy is structured around five principles: a nation-wide, long-term strategy; teach at all levels of education; build gradually with quality; build student demand; and supply of teachers and resources. It focuses on the priority languages of Indonesian, Mandarin and Japanese with other languages incorporated in later years. According to the strategy, a drive to increase the take-up of Asian languages will constitute a revolution in multilingualism which will benefit the study of all languages.

The strategy faces an uncertain future for three main reasons. The first is that it ignores the Asian elephant in the room: Australians do not yet want to engage with Asia. This does not mean that Australians oppose Asia or are racist, it means that currently most Australians either do not understand or support a push to engage with Asia. Although Australia is a multicultural nation, its population is still predominantly white or Anglo in origin, many from European nations such as the UK, Greece and Italy. These communities will either actively or passively resist a government push to force their children to learn Asian languages. Acknowledging this is a vital first step in any push to engage with Asia.

The second reason is that the strategy is top down and has a limited focus on demand. Offering to disregard language results when calculating the final high school marks degrades its value. To increase demand, we need to look at how decisions are made to study languages. The first place to look is the student: the evidence shows that students like subjects they can succeed in and those they enjoy doing with their classmates and teacher. Building demand must start here. The strategy’s ideas for in-country experiences and incentives for university access are welcome. There must also be opportunities to connect with communities of learners, including those online, and access to inspiring forms of education. Learning an Asian language must be cool, fun and easy to access.

Next are parents and their communities. A broad education program is needed to build support for engagement with Asia and the study of languages. Organisations such as Asialink are doing well but more must be done. The current best case perception is that Asia is important so we can sell them things that we dig out of the ground. The worst is that Asia is a threat. The messages must be broadened to include a fuller understanding of the economic, cultural and security issues.

Then the message needs to be popularised through employers, politicians, sports stars, community leaders and others who act as activators for public opinion. These people can help disseminate the message and ensure an environment conducive to the growth in language learning.

The third reason is that the strategy will meet considerable resistance from governments, teachers and students at all levels. By creating a new institution and endowing it with funds and power, it will impose new layers of bureaucracy, duplicate current structures and place additional burdens on teachers and schools already stretched. Offering funding on a competitive basis will ensure only rich, city schools will succeed, further reinforcing the private/public and city/regional divides.


The strategy should focus on improving the current education system rather than creating additional bureaucracy. Recent developments in technology mean that new ways of learning are available, such as online connections to language communities and teaching resources. One way to boost Asian languages is to ensure that every child has access to a high speed internet connection, not just in rich city schools but across the country. One resource overlooked is the thousands of international students currently studying in Australia, many of them native speakers of Asian languages.

The Australian Strategy for Asian Language Proficiency provides an important expansion on ideas generated at the 2020 Summit. However, unless the Asian elephant in the room is dealt with, barriers will remain to Australia’s successful engagement with Asia.

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About the Author

Nick specialises in social and behaviour change, communications, marketing and international development. He is a lecturer and PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney. His PhD research focuses on the role of change agents in behaviour change programs. He is also Director and Founder of Tulodo, the social and behaviour change agency. Nick has over 15 years of experience working with government, business, university, NGO and U.N. organisations throughout the Asia Pacific and Australia, as well as in Africa and the Americas. Nick's qualifications include an MBA (Deakin) and a Bachelor of Asian Studies (ANU) and he studied at Indonesia's Universitas Gadjah Mada.

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