Lost In Translation

As school returns for 2012, there are now more students learning Latin than Chinese. Once we take out Chinese-born students and those who speak Mandarin at home, there are just 300 students learning Mandarin in year 12 in Australia, according to accounting body CPA Australia. That is not how it was supposed to be.

In 2008, Kevin Rudd said he wanted 12 per cent of Australian students to be fluent in an Asian language by 2020. An earlier program, launched in 1994, was supposed to have 60 per cent of all students conversant in Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Korean by 2006.

There has been a general decline in language education, but a catastrophic decline in Asian languages. Korean is now virtually a dead language in the Australian school system, Indonesian is likely to disappear soon, and Japanese is sliding backwards. Chinese survives – even thrives – but only because it is taught to Chinese students.

Never dissuaded, Julia Gillard commissioned a report in November into the ”Asian century”. It is likely to recommend further investment in languages. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop believes she can trump that and make Asian language studies mandatory for all Australian students – no exceptions.

But the idea that government should prioritise Asian languages is an unexamined faith. Champions of Asian languages cite cultural benefits (increased understanding of our northern neighbours), economic benefits (ability to deal with trading partners in their language) and educational benefits (learning a second language helps with English literacy).

None of these is particularly convincing. There’s a reason Asian languages aren’t as successful as advocates would like. And it isn’t only because the government hasn’t spent enough money. It’s that not enough students want to study them.

Australian students aren’t being irrational. Language study responds to demand, and the rest of the world is learning English. Ours is the global language, the lingua franca.

Language standardisation has come by necessity, not design. Put Japanese, American, German and Saudi executives in a boardroom and the common tongue will be English – the language of business and treaties and translation.

We all know this. So why does no one blink when policymakers imply otherwise? One advocate of Asian language learning said on the ABC’s 7.30 last week that expecting to rely on English in business negotiations with an Asian counterpart is daft. Really?

If you think Australians negotiating with Chinese producers are at a disadvantage if they don’t know Chinese, then imagine how much of a disadvantage Chinese producers have if they don’t know English – the first or second language for virtually all their international customers.

Anyway, how many students today can we seriously expect to be business negotiators in Asia – and using the exact language they learned as school kids? Trade is central to our lives, sure, but few of us personally negotiate trade deals.

That advocates use only extremely narrow cases where these languages would be useful does not inspire confidence.

English’s dominance is something to be celebrated, not regretted. The rest of the world is playing catch-up. And the education curriculum is already stuffed full. Choices have to be made. If governments want to give every student an advantage in business, perhaps basic statistics and accountancy would be more helpful.

When people need languages, they learn them. And the data shows most of our students are not choosing Chinese. The language lobbyists may need to revisit their assumptions.

But they won’t, because their goal has less to do with the economic and practical benefits of language education, and more to do with an ideological vision of the future of Australia. It’s about politics, not learning.

For those who argue that Australia must become an Asian nation, squeezing Asian languages into the curriculum is an easy way to turn that vague idea into something concrete.

Without a languages policy, the Asian nation philosophy would be revealed for the empty vessel that it is. A policy to ”deepen engagement with Asia” only makes sense in the context of international diplomacy. The rest of us non-diplomats engage personally and commercially with Asia whenever we want through business, consumption and tourism. No need for a government white paper to tell us to import Chinese goods or visit Angkor Wat. If we want to appreciate Asia better, our expansive immigration program is already far more effective at building cross-cultural understanding than the memory of a few broken words of Mandarin learned at school.

Anyway, why should the education system be a plaything for the geopolitical and cultural imaginations of our politicians? We shouldn’t pretend that shoehorning this complex, ideological vision of Australian society in the 21st century into the secondary school curriculum is going to make good education policy.

One final justification for Asian language learning is that it taxes the mind and therefore promotes general literacy – it is a worthy educational priority for its own sake. This may be true. But why Asian languages? Why not Arabic, or Greek, or Russian, or Cherokee? And what’s wrong with Latin?

Foreign languages are also a remarkably indirect way to encourage English literacy. Again, the school day is short, and languages are hard. Chinese is uniquely hard – for instance, about four times as hard as French.

Second languages should be a personal choice, not a tool for geopolitical realignment. A recent book by Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs argues that English so dominates the globe that non-English speakers should be compensated. English speakers have an advantage; therefore the world needs a ”language tax”.

This is obviously absurd, but Parijs has a point: policymakers need to understand the historically unprecedented dominance of English. Perhaps, by resisting the 20-year push for them to choose Asian languages above all others, Australian students already do.