Unlocking Asian languages

The centre of economic power is shifting east and Australian governments of all stripes are trying to position the next generation to take advantage of this historic opportunity.

A key position of the former Labor government was to accomplish this through the Asian languages in schools. This emphasis is echoed by industry. Indeed at the National Press Club in 2013, even Tony Shepherd – then President of the Business Council of Australia – called for the study of Asian culture and the teaching of Asian languages to be made compulsory.

But, despite this support, Asian languages remain understudied, and actually declining. In 2009, only 5.8 per cent of Year 12 students were taking an Asian language, down from 6.6 per cent in 2005.

To understand this disparity, we need clear and unsentimental thinking about the benefits – tangible and intangible – of language learning. How much does study of a language value-add to a career?

Translation and interpretation are specialised professions, and a translator in developing Asia is unlikely to command a wage anywhere near the expectations of even a recent Australian university graduate. It’s quite cheap to acquire highly-developed translation skillsets.

So if a business wants to expand in the Chinese market, would you hire a marketer who has three years of Chinese study? Or would you look for the best marketer you can find, and the best translator you can find? You’d go for the latter.

Compounding this, there are very few – if any – early career paths which effectively combine language with a primary degree. For a language graduate who wants to move to Asia, chances are that your entry-level career options are limited to teaching English. If you’ve done a dual degree in, say, Law or Commerce, you may never use your language in your professional life.

Finally, being a native speaker of the world language – English – is an enormous advantage. Language study is notoriously time-intensive, requiring an immense amount of rote learning and intensive practice. Native English speakers can re-invest this time in other study areas.

It’s not hard to see why students are turning from Asian languages.

Of course, there are substantial cultural, intellectual and other non-economic, benefits from foreign languages. But are we going to leave language study there? Or perhaps there are intersections and synergies between the economic and cultural after all?

Let me give you an example.

In 2009, I was on a train from Nanjing to Shanghai. Sitting next to me was an old man. With only a year under my belt, my Chinese wasn’t great, but he managed to convey his life story.

When he was born, China was ruled by a collection of warlords, communists and Nationalists. When he turned eleven, Mao defeated the Nationalists and proclaimed New China. He then starved through the Great Leap Forward, dodged the Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution and saw Deng’s decade of political and economic liberalisation end at Tiananmen Square.

Undoubtedly, his children and grandchildren had heard his stories dozens of times. His stories would shape their worldview as much as his experiences had shaped his. The experiences of his generation vividly infuse the values of the current.

Without Chinese, I would have sat next to him in silence.

This story speaks about one intersection of economic and cultural engagement.

To understand modern Asia, we must engage not only with the English-speaking elite, but also with the non-English speaking middle, working and rural classes.

Language expands the range of people with whom we can interact. It heightens our knowledge and appreciation of their culture, history and possible futures. It helps us to target markets for export goods, understand their actions in international arenas and engage constructively in business.

To encourage younger Australians to grasp these opportunities, we need to re-focus our policy settings. We concentrate on language learning, but need equal focus on retention and refinement.

There must be clearer synergies between career and education. Language graduates shouldn’t be forced to choose between a career that solely focuses on their chosen language, and one that does not touch it at all.

One way Labor could do this in Government is to encourage business to establish overseas opportunities for young graduates, providing practical business experience in foreign markets and allowing them to retain and refine their language.

A future Labor Government could lead the way by implementing these changes in the public sector.

Whether you’re in Foreign Affairs, Trade, Immigration or Agriculture, Commonwealth departments are called upon more and more to advise governments on issues of international significance.

To effectively serve the next Labor government, the next generation of public servants will need hands-on foreign experience.

Labor has positioned Australia as an outward-looking, poised and confident country. Since Whitlam, Labor has sought security in Asia, not security from Asia. By expanding policy settings, we can deepen these ties, integrating us further into the region and locking in another great Labor achievement.

About Merric Foley

Merric Foley

Merric is a longtime student of Mandarin Chinese, and a former policy adviser to the Agriculture and Trade Ministers, Joe Ludwig and Richard Marles. He is currently working as an independent policy consultant and completing a Masters in Public and International Law. More:

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