Asian languages are essential because they are essential

The white paper Australia in the Asian Century was released this week. It is as exciting as you expect white papers to be.

I am unimpressed by the arguments for increasing Asian language literacy.

As expected it is full of sentences like this.

Proficiency in more than one language is a basic skill of the 21st century.


Businesses are increasingly outward-looking, innovative and  capable of adapting and responding to change. More will require cultural and  language skills to collaborate and partner in the region.

And so on. This is partnered with a resolution to increase the number of students studying Asian languages, or at least make sure they can study them if they want to.

But as I questioned one year ago (almost to the day!), what’s the problem that’s being addressed?.

Last week I had a job promotion interview. I didn’t even think of putting my (limited but still improving) Mandarin and Japanese on my resume. I know they’re of no use, as would my employers. For all the talk of a shortage, there’s precious little in the way of leaders, CEOs, think tankers or whatever whom earned their position with language proficiency.

The promises of jobs are simply not true, so they will fail to attract students that way. This might be due to ignorance or poor selection of leaders on the part of organisations (I doubt it), but increasing the supply of speakers won’t help there anymore than increasing numbers of women in the population would help the disparity in gender in upper management where adverse selection is a clear problem. The public good arguments on the other hand are never properly described.

It is probably wise then that the white paper also resolves to

 Work with business and the community to increase understanding of the benefits of learning a foreign language and boost demand for language studies.

Please! I await eagerly!

Last year when I wrote that post, no one came forth to tell all the benefits that would accrue from greater Asian language literacy. I hope someone might do it this time. Promising nonexistent jobs or hand waving wonderful public benefits does not serve the cause.

Of all people I should be inclined to support this. Learning languages is hugely rewarding to me (non financially), and East Asia is a constant recurring topic for my posts here. By the traditional practice of determining ideal curricula – i.e “My area of expertise is essential for a well functioning citizen” – I should be ridiculously in favour. To an extent my heart is.

But the case is not made. My obsession with the topic is outweighed by my dislike of argumentum ad nauseum. Please, someone, make the case for increased Asian language literacy for public policy without just asserting it [1]. Treat us as adults and make a case.

I now have to make a phone call in connection with my continuing Mandarin study.

[fn1] Though of course I’d like you to read last year’s post to address my more detailed complaints.





About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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34 Responses to Asian languages are essential because they are essential

  1. Elise says:

    “…no one came forth to tell all the benefits that would accrue from greater Asian language literacy. I hope someone might do it this time.”

    Nothing could be easier! My nextdoor neighbour would benefit. She was an Indonesian teacher, until funding and interest levels evaporated.

    Indeed lots of language teachers would benefit, because these nominated languages require more manhours of teaching than European languages, if English is the mother tongue. Estimated at about four times as many hours, in the case of Chinese and Japanese.

    What will they cut from the curriculum to accomodate this?

    As for the benefits to our society or economy…not sure it would make much difference, if we remain a supplier of raw materials. Supply of education probably also wouldn’t be affected, since students coming to Australia are probably wanting to learn English as much as anything else.

    The rest of the reasoning about languages helping potential future trade in high tech might be wishful fluff on the part of Julia and the authors of the White Paper.

    • john r walker says:

      “What will they cut from the curriculum to accommodate this?”

      Are there things in the current curriculum that are less valuable, useful?

      • Elise says:

        Yep, that was the implicit question!

        If you choose for something, then you implicitly choose against something else, which has to be dropped to make way for it.

        Chinese or Japanese cannot simply take the slot previously allocated for French or German (one implicit choice, i.e. for Asian languages and thus against European languages). The students could not achieve the same level of language literacy with similar tuition hours. These languages would need a slot roughly 4 times greater, according to the experience of teaching languages for the US diplomatic corps.

        This implies choosing against more than just the alternative languages currently taught in most schools. Other subjects would also have to be dropped or curtailed, somewhere along the line.

        Since there was no discussion about how this might be implemented, it looks more like a thought bubble, than a seriously planned objective.

        • murph the surf. says:

          I thought the purpose of the ‘launch’ was to interfere with Maxine McKew’s book release?
          Now we have Bishop raking over the coals of the AWU scandal in Question Time and I would bet that in one week we won’t see a single mention of the Asian century.
          Pity about whatever effort Ken Henry made with his team.
          A new but not really compelling idea from JubJang Chiasarn ( see towards bottom of thread)- we need language skills to cheat our new business partners!
          Excellent – motivation if ever it was needed.

  2. Tel says:

    Proficiency in more than one language is a basic skill of the 21st century.

    It probably is actually, but mostly as a consequence of the free movement of people and better communication technology (i.e. supply driven rather than demand driven). The more common a skill is, the less value it has (econ 101 as they say). Lots of native Asian speakers also have decent skills in English.

    This is partnered with a resolution to increase the number of students studying Asian languages, or at least make sure they can study them if they want to.

    Hmmm, those two statements are entirely different. One comes to an equilibrium where the student balances the effort of learning a language against the reward of using the language, the other delivers impressive and arbitrary numbers to justify expenditure.

  3. Jim Rose says:

    languages are network goods. many more people seem to want to learn English because that is the better network. why stress joining the smaller networks?

  4. emess says:


    A few years ago, Adelaide bought six trams at $6m apiece.

    Of course, had someone on their staff been able to speak Czech, they could have googled it and found the list price of similar trams from Plzen was about half that. That’s not anecdotal. Both prices were available widely (and separately) in the media at the time.

    Part of the functioning of any market is the knowledge of prices, quality and availability of goods to be bought and sold. If your competitors know prices, quality and availability of goods in your market and their market, and you only know the price, quality and availability in your own market, you are at a disadvantage. As the South Australians found out to their cost. If you do not know the language and culture of the market your are selling into or buying from, there is a severe imbalance of market knowledge – and it is not in the favour of the monolinguist.

  5. Chris says:

    Is the public good argument the fact that learning another language at school exposes children to other cultures (at least in the younger years of life)? Even if students remember nothing from the second language they learned in primary and high school, encountering this culture later in life is more likely to be undertaken with curiosity and respect rather than ignorance and fear.

    I guess it could look kind of nefarious describing latent socialisation as the main aim of government policy, so this might explain why the argument wasn’t made.

  6. On a personal note I do find myself personally restricted by my monolingualism. As emess mentioned, access to information is as critical as it has ever been. I would love to read German and French economics writings, Chinese and Japanese news.

    However, as far as pay-offs in terms of career and income, multilingualism is not so great, especially in Australia. I don’t believe this is the case everywhere. We just got lucky by having the ‘world language’. Other language speakers get a premium for speaking our language, we don’t really get it for speaking a single other language.

    One could argue that the spill-over intelligence effects of learning two languages may be important. Again, I am not sure about that. However the main question, as far as school curriculums go, is whether languages, and the generic comprehension/pattern recognitions/cultural awareness and generally improved thinking it encourages are th types of things we want out children to learn. The answer for me is yes, regardless of economic justification based on income, earnings, or competitiveness.

    • Elise says:

      Cameron, this was a great summary!

      I also agree with Jim’s pragmatic point about network goods, but it is true that you get a lot more value from interactions in another country if you know the language. Even as a tourist. But it is especially so if you are posted to the country for work, and are living there.

      Something which many expats wrestle with, is the cost/benefit analysis for reaching fluency in a language, versus learning enough to get around. If the posting is for 2-3 years, and it costs you more like 5-6 years of study (using a lot of your spare time outside of work) to reach genuine fluency, many wonder if it is worth the trouble to go beyond the minimum unless they really love the culture and the language.

      Learning another language is probably also a “good thing” for building brain muscles, if you believe what they say about learning a language to ward off dementia. But you would probably need to enjoy it for its own sake to persist. If you are working on will-power alone, it could be subject to the same problem as dieting and New Year’s resolutions?

      Returning to the White Paper, there would seem to be a good argument for building a foundation in key language/s in children (depending on what we define as “key”). The foundation would be easier to build on later as an adult, should they need it or become so inclined.

      The questions to my mind, are how much of children’s limited school hours should be allocated, and how much of a foundation should be built, and which are the best foundation languages.

  7. Michael says:

    I wouldn’t bother making the argument in terms of job payoff since this is unknowable for the details of much of the school curriculum – unless you possess a crystal ball. The attempt to craft curriculums to cater for the job market doesn’t even really work for a lot of tertiary education where it superficially makes more sense.
    Learning languages changes people in many ways and provides insights into language structure that can have benefits in someones primary language. There is also a small chance that the general level of ignorance about the world outside Australia is reduced – always a good thing for a geographically isolated country.

  8. fxh says:

    if you believe what they say about learning a language to ward off dementia.

    I just heard this spouted on radio now by a Prof of Language no less.

    I don’t want to be rude but they are just spouting hippy nonsense, like a recent adelaide uni study that said “positive” people live longer, or cancer is caused by negative attitude, or that you can “fight” cancer by thinking positively.

  9. fxh says:

    wheres the edit button

  10. Doglips says:

    I think you mean ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’.

    Another benefit of learning a second (or third) language is that you understand your own language’s structure better.

  11. Elise says:

    The problem with the White Paper objective, is that languages are easiest to learn before age 10, so best started in primary school (based on language studies conducted in Europe). Primary school would be long before most children have formed an opinion on what career they want, or whether they plan to live overseas. As such, in choosing for them, the foundation would need to be adaptable and multi-purpose, rather than putting all eggs in a smaller basket.

    Returning to Jim’s point about network goods, joining the largest networks (aside from English) makes good sense if we don’t want to have monolingual school graduates.

    Perhaps the optimal school choice should be: Chinese (one Asian foundation, and a large population with growing influence) and Spanish (one European foundation, and a large number of speakers around the world). This would open up two large networks, with a basic foundation for related networks.

    Why not the others mentioned in the White Paper? Apparently Hindi isn’t spoken by all people in India, whereas they all speak English. Indonesian would be useful in 2 countries (Indonesian and Malaysia), but would be a significantly smaller network (than accessible from Chinese or Spanish), and it would be easier to pick up later. Chinese and Japanese are apparently related, in a similar way to Spanish, Italian and French being related. If you have a foundation in one, then it should be easier to augment with the other later. Of the 2 asian networks, Chinese would be the larger, and they may possibly become more demanding than the Japanese when they begin to dominate world trade?

  12. Jennifer McCulloch says:

    … and having learned the language and done the brain gym in primary school, if there is nowhere to use it then what? Keep doing the brain gym in secondary school? Languages that exist in schools are brain gym; nothing more. Now I will say the obvious; language has a purpose and that is to communicate needs and exigencies of life. Take that purpose away and you have an enjoyable or a frustrating intellectual exercise. Over the last 100 years or so applied linguists and language teachers have gone red and blue trying to develop a meaningful communicative approach to language learning in the classroom. And guess what there still isn’t one. Why? Because the circumstances of the language classroom do not require the communication; the communicative imperative is not there.

  13. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Cameron – One could argue that. I am waiting for someone to whole heartedly, and rigourously do so.

    Elise – As Jim notes, the networks all point back to English. People in Asia don’t just use English to speak to native anglophones, they use it to speak to Brazilians or each other. I know from experience that when Chinese and Japanese speak, they tend to use English.

    And on that note, although they share some words and a writing system, Japanese and Chinese are as different from each other as they each are from English. The systems of grammar in each are utterly unalike. I’d even be prepared to say that Chinese is closer to English than it is to Japanese.

  14. Pedro says:

    While I think the predictions of a mass increase in asian language teaching a fantasy, I wonder what will be the opportunity costs if it happens.

    Perhaps it is a fault of the reporting, but has anyone seen anything in the white paper that is not banal or trite? I’m prepared to accept that Asians will likely buy more education from us if we are good at providing it; however, I don’t recall anything changing on the pit-falls of winner picking so it would probable be better to not make that a national focus.

    I seem to recall there being some evidence that monolithic state-enterprises might tend to be the crappy parts of the economy, like in China, so is there much reason to be optimistic about the prospects of our tertiary sector?

    There is only one road to long run increased living standards and that is increased productivity. The bonus rents we are currently seeing never seem to last very long. Luckily for us, we will benefit from the increase in productivity of our neighbours even if our productivity stagnates. But what is it about Asian development that would change the nature of the productivity increases we would want to seek?

    The longer our govt lasts the more I think that deep-down they are just itching to release a five year plan.

  15. conrad says:

    ” I’d even be prepared to say that Chinese is closer to English than it is to Japanese.”

    I reckon you’d be right on that (although the similarity is presumably entirely by accident). Both have a canonical SVO order, both don’t tend to use particles to indicate grammatical functions, both have a pretty impoverished verb morphology, and even the compounding in Chinese, whilst generally sounding a bit strange, can generally be understood in English.

  16. Elise says:

    Richard, I don’t know how to say this well, but there is still a point in learning a language even if the people you are communicating with are fluent (or almost fluent) in English as their second language.

    I speak from experience of living and working in Europe. Even when you are working with highly educated professionals, and the official language for reports is English, you will have a different relationship with them if they do not have to always use their second language for your sake. People relax more, and their sense of humour shows.

    I would not argue strenuously that it is essential for conducting business in a commercial sense, but it does improve the experience of living in a foreign country. I’ve never seen documented evidence that it is essential for both sides to be bilingual.

    However, do we decide everything on a purely economic basis?

  17. emess says:

    One could look at this question another way by broadening it. One could ask the same question regarding many sorts of knowledge/skill. Why learn economics? If economists want to talk to me, they better learn my language. (!) Why learn arithmetic? If shopkeepers want me to buy their stuff, they’d better add up for me and find some independent way of checking that I am happy with.

    The idea is this: if one is in an environment where people one is dealing with have particular cultural and communication skills, and if you wish to engage with them, you have to get up to a basic level in that particular culture or skill set. Just imagine if you tried to post on an economics blog without some understanding of economics. It may be fine to know zip about economics if you are posting a comment on an Alan Kohler post on the Drum, but try it with Mr Waldman, and see how you get on. In other words, if one does not learn the language of economics and the content (culture), then the level of possible engagement is limited.

    It is precisely this sort of issue that learning a language addresses. If we want to engage with Asia on an Alan Kohler level, then no change needed. If otoh, we want to do it on a Mr Waldman level, then we need to be able to speak the same language.

    Another point is this. While it may well take six hundred hours to learn a language, it may not take anywhere near that amount to be able to engage at a lower level. I think the pareto principle applies. One does not have to be able to discuss Brecht to be able to know enough to trawl product catalogues for example. And as for the age thing, one of my classmates, when I was learning Czech, was in his seventies. And he blitzed the class. LOL.

  18. conrad says:

    “However, do we decide everything on a purely economic basis?”

    If you want a good argument for why learning a second language (of any type) is useful on non-economic grounds for things other than enjoying your life, then one is that there’s pretty decent evidence that if you learn a second language at a young age, it helps you develop the ability to inhibit some forms of distracting information. The effect sizes are pretty small, but if its a life-time benefit, that’s not bad. Whether it’s better than, say, learning more maths or something like that is another story.

  19. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    Conrad – I’d always thought of the characters (for lack of a better word) that are used in Mandarin to indicate tense as being particles, and the same with the prepositions (postpositions I guess, technically speaking). I guess this thought is a product of the writing system – I might think of “ed” as a particle if it was always written seperately to the verb it was giving tense to. I wonder what I should call them. They certainly don’t serve the range, and are not as bewildering as Japanese particles.

    Emess – The difference as I see it is we need not ask “why aren’t more people learning economics language”. There is a demand for economists, and it is being met by people studying economics. There is no need to set targets or evangelise the virtues of doing so. Yet policy makers are doing this with Asian languages. There is no apparent demand for the speakers of these languages, and hence no supply, so we have to rely on public good arguments about understanding etc.

  20. Pedro says:

    “However, do we decide everything on a purely economic basis?”

    No, but the assertion of the white paper is that great economic benefits will flow.

    “One could ask the same question regarding many sorts of knowledge/skill. Why learn economics? ”

    True, but then nobody is suggesting every child should learn economics or that 1/3 of company directors ought to be economists.

  21. conrad says:

    Richard, I was thinking more of particles stuck on nouns to indicate whether they are the subject or object rather than the stuff which goes on verbs. I also don’t find the tense markers in Chinese very different to English inflections (aside from the fact there are not oodles of irregularities, like English), and it’s certainly how I think about them (or perhaps thought about them these days), when I was learning Chinese. There are actually a few studies looking at this now, and I think the basic conclusion is that the characters that change verbs in Chinese really do function like English inflections (e.g., Journal of Memory and Language DOI:10.1016/j.jml.2005.11.005 — Frequency effects in the processing of Chinese inflection)

  22. emess says:

    Richard and Pedro,

    “True, but then nobody is suggesting every child should learn economics or that 1/3 of company directors ought to be economists.”

    Good point. But then again, the discussion started did it not from the assumption that Australia is intending to engage more in the Asian region? By analogy, had the starting point been a White Paper aimed at increasing Australian economic power, then would anyone seriously suggest that we need not learn the language of economics, or suggest that there is no reason at all for learning that language because the economists would have to learn our language anyway?

    That was my point in comparing discussions with Alan Kohler on the Drum as opposed to discussions on Interfluidity with Waldman. If one wishes to discuss economics at Kohler level, no need to learn that much about the language of economics. If, however, one wishes to engage further in economic debate, then one does need to learn the language (and the ‘culture’ or ‘science’).

    At the moment, I put it that the thrust of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is to get us from Kohler level to Waldman level in terms of engagement.

  23. Pedro says:

    “The idea is this: if one is in an environment where people one is dealing with have particular cultural and communication skills, and if you wish to engage with them, you have to get up to a basic level in that particular culture or skill set. Just imagine if you tried to post on an economics blog without some understanding of economics.”

    No question, but, is there an identified lack? As Richard points out, there is a low demand for asian language teaching. The govt wants 1/3 of company directors to be deeply experienced in asia. Can the govt see $100 notes on the footpath that the commercial sector is blind to?

    Having decided to prepare a white paper something had to be said, the content suggests the white paper wasn’t really such a big idea.

  24. emess says:

    Hi Pedro,

    Let’s say that if you can’t speak the language, then how would you know whether or not there were $100 dollar bills on the pavements of any of our Asian neighbours? Would you expect your competitors in the local market to tell you? Would you expect some translator to tell you? Would you expect your customer to come running to your door begging you for your product? Personally, I would wish Australian telemarketers would adopt the same principle. After all, speaking to me in my own language is not necessary if I am a customer, I should learn Hindi, right? :)

    If a manager or director of a company in our two speed economy did not think that there might be a niche somewhere for the widgets they are selling in China, it is not worth learning a language. However, if they aren’t scouring the market publications and local regional contacts, they aren’t looking. If they can’t speak the language, they can’t scour the markets for sales. Ergo, if they can’t speak the language, they aren’t looking. If you aren’t looking, you definitely won’t find any $100 bills, nor know whether they are there or not.

    From a philosophical pov, learning a language provides information in a market. I guess it depends on whether or not company directors reckon that market information in their particular product is crucial or not. If they are in the fast lane of the two speed economy, perhaps not.

    Again, I am not talking about discussing Nietszche here. Even the ability to use local search engines and/or read the catalogues of one’s competitors to work out what the opposition is doing doesn’t have to be too hard surely?

  25. Pedro says:

    Emess, I’m not denying that our business people might be able to do things a bit better or that opportunities are missed. I think Richard’s original question is whether there is any evidence for the large benefits asserted to flow from a major increase in asian language studies. That question remains unanswered.

    I think there is an additional question, which is whether there is any sort of “national effort” we can make to enhance our profits from the economic development to our north.

  26. emess says:

    Ah. I see.

    Ok. Therefore if I believe that better information in the market place makes it operate more efficiently, and that therefore a lack of information by one market player places that player at a disadvantage….then lack of language skill translates into a market disadvantage if we can agree that lack of language skill equates to a lack of information.

    So, I guess Richard’s question (as you are putting it) boils down to whether or not gaining information in a market is important to players in that market. I suppose that has been addressed somewhere in economic theory. :) That is not trivial, insofar as someone in the fast lane of the economy may well have the problem of getting product out the door, with customers beating their doors down. Language skill acquisition probably in that market is not high on the agenda and information about the customer probably needs only to be as far as how good their bank balance is. Those in the slow lane might want to think about improving their knowledge of their markets as an alternative to workchoices.

  27. JubJang Chaisarn says:

    Asian languages ought to be considered essential but for paradoxical reasons. We ought to all speak these languages, and then hide the fact that we can understand what these people are talking about. The advantage that foreigners have on the mono-lingual English-Speakers, is because they can talk ABOUT YOU in front of you, then the natural thing is for you to be disrespected in front of the group. See the conception the report -writers have is that we learn the Asian languages to suck up to these people. No good could ever come of such a daft notion. The idea is to learn their language, pretend we don’t know it, and benefit by way of this extra clandestine intelligence.

    • Elise says:

      Actually, you are totally correct, JubJang!

      People will indeed talk about you, or about your proposal, in front of you in their own language, if they think you don’t understand.

      You don’t need to be an expert in body language to realise that when they switch to their own language and continue amongst themselves, that it can be something they don’t want you to understand.

      Sometimes it is just that they are agitated (in tense negotiations or crisis situations), or the topic is complex, or they are having a joke, so they switch to their easiest mode of communication. But don’t count on it always being for innocent motives.

      Once you know the language more, you can hear what they say in front of others. Reasonably often it isn’t flattering, and it can be things that the other side would indeed want to know.

      There is nothing more satisfying than keeping mum about your level of knowledge, and the other side discovering belatedly that you knew what they were discussing amongst themselves. A bit like spying, without committing any crime!

  28. JubJang Chaisarn says:

    Right. Half-assed attempts to show off how you speak their language, like what Rudd was famous for, well this marks you out for the boot-licker you truly are. Better to study Thai for five years, and then pretend you have recently tried to pick up a few Thai words, and then they’ll think you are some sort of Saint, but then at the same time pretend to be almost ignorant. Its like having a truth serum. And since you have the information and act upon it, there is some sort of intuition that will be out there in the aether that will be telling these people not to diss or short-change you.

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