Foreign language on back burner in Australia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 December, 2006, 12:00am

Australia's Education Minister has hit out at the state of foreign language learning in the nation's schools and universities.

Julie Bishop told a national conference that despite successive agreements between the federal government and states over the past 17 years on the importance of learning a foreign language, more than 85 per cent of young Australians left secondary school without having studied even one.

'With the phenomenal economic growth of China and India we can expect our focus to move even further from Europe to Asia,' she said.

'For our nation to continue to prosper we must enhance our links with the world - we do that by improving our cultural understanding and our language skills.'

What Ms Bishop omitted to mention was that four years ago the federal government scrapped an annual A$30 million (HK$183 million) funding scheme for a national Asian languages programme.

Language teachers suddenly found the money was no longer there for retraining or study trips to Asia; the government appeared to be saying that Asian studies and languages were not important.

That still seems to be the case: although the mainland is playing a crucial role in the economic health of Australia, only 16 of Australia's 40 universities offer Chinese language courses - and only 18 provide classes in Indonesian yet Indonesia is Australia's closest Asian nation.

The Asian Studies Association of Australia notes that fewer than 6,000 university students out of nearly a million are studying Putonghua but nearly half of these are from Asia and many will take their multilingual skills back to their own countries.

The outlook for Indonesian is worse: the number studying that language at university suffered a 25 per cent decline between 2001 and last year while enrolments in Japanese fell by more than 5 per cent in the same period despite the fact that Japan is Australia's second-largest trading partner.

The government's Asian Studies Council proposed in 1989 that by 2000, one in 10 university students would be studying an Asian language although the result was fewer than 3 per cent. The council also suggested that one in five would be studying some aspect of Asia yet the actual outcome was fewer than one in 20.

Professor Robin Jeffrey, immediate past president of the Asian Studies Association and director of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, says that falling enrolments make it harder for universities to continue teaching an Asian language.

'It's a downward spiral,' Professor Jeffrey said. 'Only the ANU has been able to hold its languages up by maintaining good programmes that students recognise are going to be there in a year or two's time.'

Professor Jeffrey says the association has been trying since 2002 to persuade the government to provide more funding for language teaching but without success.