Asian Language and Cultural Proficiency in Australia

Edit – I really want opposing views. Anyone who thinks there is a strong case for a concerted push for more literacy, please give it in comments

At the Lowy Interpreter Andrew Carr says “One policy guaranteed to feature in the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ White Paper is the take-up of Asian languages by Australians.” It’s a recurrent topic, and an interesting one for musing.

I certainly back Carr’s call that “One focus of the Asian Century white paper should be explaining how Australians can benefit from higher Asia literacy.” I back it because I don’t really understand the benefits of a concerted top down push for greater Asia literacy. I say this as someone who chose to study Mandarin at university, someone with family ties to Japan [fn1], someone who spends much of their free time reading about Asian societies and languages and someone who writes long posts such as this, (or thisthisthisthisthisthis or this for just a sample). Asia literacy is interesting, but is it beneficial? I genuinely don’t know and if anything I should be biased towards that view. The need for Asia literacy, particularly language proficiency, is asserted frequently, but rarely argued.

The phoenix and the lyrebird

The economic case needs some bolstering. There doesn’t appear to be a major shortage of graduates that business is desperate for, else they’d be lurking around universities ready to  pounce just as the mining industry goes hunting for geologists and surveyors or they’d be providing the kind of salaries that would entice people to undertake such studies. And if they were, we wouldn’t need to discuss a government policy [EDIT – See fnA]. Carr recognises this when he says the individual rewards are minor, but the gains to the country as a whole are great. But this market failure needs to be demonstrated, not just asserted. What are the positive externalities generated by greater literacy and how do they improve economic ties?

It is insufficient to merely list statistics on growth and trade flows without linking them to desired cultural literacy. I am old enough that my primary school education still had the resources and courses from an earlier push to learn Japanese in the era of the Multifunction Polis. Enthusiasm had dried up when the Japanese bubble burst and stagnation began, but the economic partnership with Japan is still very large, only having recently been dislodged by China as Australia’s largest trading partner. Did we forgo even greater ties and economic power by not persisting? This is not obvious to me. Our Japanese literacy, even if reduced to just pop culture, is still greater than our understanding of Korea, whose wave has barely lapped our shores , yet South Korea is our fourth largest trading partner. Is there trade being foregone? Maybe, but the case has not been made.

The security and strategic case is more interesting, particularly in regard to a country like Indonesia. This is a crucial relationship, and also one where diplomatic ties appear to have been well managed over the past 65 years. But it also one where a persistent and irrational mutual distrust exists in the public of both countries. I get the feeling that cultural understanding would likely make the job of leaders willing to pursue policies of mutual benefit a great deal easier. Having to also juggle electorates who are fearful of terrorists, drug dealers, plots to Balkanise the country or invade it and yellow media willing to exploit these fears may be an impediment to that. But that’s just a feeling. If it is true, it should be argued as such.

A few generations ago universities produced people who were certain that now education was sufficient without a knowledge of the classics and Greek and Latin, and would be incredulous if the virtues of knowing Ovid and Aristophanes were questioned. Despite the fact I am inclined to support Asia literacy, rationally the case as currently made is no more robust than the classicists or anyone else who merely asserts the universally essential nature of their owneducation.

That all said, I have thought about some of the difficulties in pursuing greater literacy, particularly language proficiency in Australia.

One issue that possibly could be hindering broader take up of languages is the presence already of a stock of students with both demand to learn and some level of proficiency in Asian languages – a gift of multiculturalism. Whilst providing at least a minimum of speakers (at least in Chinese and Korean) for the sake of businesses and governments, it may provide a discouraging dynamic in school years.

Researchers have long studied the “differential age effect” in sport, (here’s an example from Australian Rules) which have major effects on the makeup of professional competitions. Youth sport competitions separate children into age grades based on a birthday cut off. However, if the cutoff date is say January 1st, a child born in early January may be competing against children born in December who are nearly a year behind in terms of physical and mental development at an age when even a few months can make a large difference. This does not reflect their potential as adults, yet in every adult professional competition those born shortly after the junior cutoff dates are very disproportionately represented. This is partially because those who show relative merit in the early years get picked for special programs. But it is also because the children, feeling they have merit because of their relative performance, are much more motivated.

Likewise, in a junior language class, even a small amount of background in the language will lead to a large difference in relative performance. Children without the background will be more inclined to pursue subjects where their relative performance is greater and by the senior years only those with a background interest and ability remain (5th paragraph). This is especially powerful in language and sports. Where in most subjects ability determined in exams which may not be visible to others, on the sportsfield and in language classrooms where spoken exercises are a necessity, relative ability is so nakedly apparent. A language class is one of the most ego puncturing and potentially disheartening intellectual activities you can take.

I have a personal experience of this. After three years of Mandarin at university I enrolled in course of commercial Mandarin at another university. Less than ten percent of the students were neither Chinese or Australians of Chinese background [fn2]. I pulled out due to ill health, but I doubt I would have been able to motivate myself given the gulf in ability – it was’ just far too disheartening for anyone with a less than an ironclad self confidence. This despite having nothing but support (and I suspect a different marking scale) from fellow students and the tutor.

I’m not sure how this can be dealt with though, given classes are already divided into background and non background streams where possible. Additionally this hypothesis only has limited use . There’s certainly not a large number of Australians bringing their background in Bahasa Indonesia to school and discouraging their classmates, and Korean is very geographically bound, 60% of the Australian Korean population lives in Sydney alone.

There is a supply issue. Sometimes it can be difficult to find resources to enlighten oneself even when you are motivated. Carr found this when trying to learn Indonesian, and I found it just trying to read up on Indonesia – there simply wasn’t much material easily out there in English (especially compared to European countries). What was there was disproportionately written by Australians already. Something more can be done here.

But the problem (if it is a problem) must mainly be a preference and demand side one, and that’s really the only way towards proficiency given even subsidised financial incentives can only go so far. But for all our faith in marketing and its army of snake oil merchants, there isn’t really a proven way to manipulate preferences. Calling for policy to increase demand for a certain subject is one thing, finding a way to do so is much harder.

 

[fn1] Tsukamasa is my name through marriage, not birth.

[fn2] I should mention that neither of these subgroups were looking for easy units. The course was teaching business Mandarin whose vocabulary is largely coined in the past few decades and is very unlikely to be known in a domestic setting.

Edit – [fnA] At the East Asia Forum budding Indonesia specialist (and coincidentally former schoolmate of mine) Arjuna Dibley bemoans the fact even governments do not seek specialists.

 

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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conrad
conrad
10 years ago

I agree — I learnt German and Japanese at high school (or really didn’t learnt them) as they were supposed to be the great business languages of the time, and then I ended up working in France and Hong Kong — C’est la vie I guess — and I’m probably exceptional as I imagine most Australians will never spend any time in their lives working in a non-English speaking country. Spanish would have been more helpful to me, as at least there are many more fun places you can go with it (like California :) ) and hundreds of millions more speakers.

I also think your experience highlights the obvious reason we don’t need top-down reform — a fair chunk of Australias migrants come from these countries, and most are fine at speaking English, so it’s not like we have a shortage of bilinguals in, for example, Mandarin, and not like we are ever going to have a shortage. Even if we did, it wouldn’t exactly be hard to find them.

I think the main benefit of learning a second language in Australia, if it’s taught well (and I don’t remember it being so when I went to school), is that people have to start learning basic aspects of grammar, which many don’t appear to know now.

FDB
FDB
10 years ago

I think the main benefit of learning a second language in Australia, if it’s taught well (and I don’t remember it being so when I went to school), is that people have to start learning basic aspects of grammar, which many don’t appear to know now.

You got that right Conrad.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

I agree too. On the economic argument, take Japan as an example. Their poor foreign language skills did not stop them becoming one of the great trading nations. Even in a country with significant international trade, only a small percentage of the population will be directly involved in jobs that require communication with someone in the other country.

I’m of course not against foreign languages being taught at school, but nor do I see any need to fret about the relatively small number of people reaching a high level of proficiency.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

mostly agreed, but only because the native language here is English, the worlds dominant trading language. For small countries with languages spoken only by themselves, its a no-brainer that you have to teach your population the dominant trading language around, which over time might vary from Latin, French, English, and perhaps someday in the not too-distant future, Chinese.

Take your own examples: could Japan have reached its position today without almost universal teaching of English? Are the Chinese making a mistake right now teaching much of their next generation English?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

ps. The value of bilingualism and knowledge of other cultures (whether extinct or not does not really matter) gives you a more flexible and broader perspective on life. If you want to see the value of that, just contrast the actions of the Americans and the Europeans in Afganistan and Iraq. Someone who really only knows one culture/language will have very little chance understanding others, which bites you as soon as you are confronted by a problem germinating from within another culture.

Andrew Norton
10 years ago

Paul – Though Japanese attempts to teach English do not appear to have been very successful. In a couple of weeks there a few years ago I found only two people (a Kyoto tour guide and a guy at the JAL counter at the airport) who were fluent in English, and in routine transactions in shops and restaurants often there was no common language (luckily they are big on photographic menus). Given my own monolingualism I was in no position to complain, but in far more extensive travels in Europe I have very rarely experienced significant language issues.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Learning languages is easy, you just decide to want to do it and then immerse yourself in the language…how else do you think so many people speak English so well?

Like 99.9% of things in life, of course, it is going to be extremely difficult for any government program to materially affect that dynamic, and thus, Australians are going to continue to struggle with languages.

The only practical program I could see would be exchanges. Which is not going to happen on any large scale and even if it did all too often the foreigners’ English would improve much more than our visiting Australians’ other language.

For me the greatest benefit is closeness – you can always be closer to someone if you share some of their culture – and aesthetics. I love things in their original language (shame for me that I only know French and English!).

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
10 years ago

Interesting post. Thx. I think it would be good to teach more Asian languages, but for cultural reasons – akin to Paul’s second comment. We should be showing greater gregariousness in our region. We’re going to need to understand those Chinese as well as possible.

About three years ago I went to Japan with my daughter and we dropped in on a class her age – then year nine. They’d been learning English for about nine years, and couldn’t manage the simplest things. I don’t know if they could could to ten, but it was virtually impossible for me to get anything across at all other than “My name is Nicholas”, what’s yours. If I’d have said something like “What did you have for lunch” I would have got blank stares.

My son did Japanese in primary school for six years. He can count to twenty and has some random vocab – that’s pretty much it. They kept teaching the same things each year – so as to be inclusive and all that.

dave
dave
10 years ago

As far as I can tell from your post, the argument for encouraging more Australians to study Asian languages amounts to this knowledge being a public good: we need more people who understand Asian languages than the market supplies. Forgive me if this is incorrect!

But it’s unclear that there is a strong case for this knowledge to be a public good. What exactly are the negative externalities for having less than the market supplied knowledge? If you argue that our government would have better intelligence on Asian countries, I’d say we’re oversupplied at present.

Also, what about the fate of those we encourage to study Asian languages? What jobs will these people perform that we need? As you say “There doesn’t appear to be a major shortage of graduates that business is desperate for”. I would be more blunt and say that there are bugger all career prospects outside the intelligence agencies if you’ve only got language and cultural knowledge. And, if you have other skills, there are very few careers which marry the two.

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
10 years ago

Richard, I would wager that the ‘economic case’ would be far more substantial for emphasising Math and Stats than even 3 Asian languages.

Peter Patton
Peter Patton
10 years ago

A few generations ago universities produced people who were certain that now education was sufficient without a knowledge of the classics and Greek and Latin, and would be incredulous if the virtues of knowing Ovid and Aristophanes were questioned

More Herodotus, Strabo, and the like, who taught the English public school graduate more about the Muhammadan, Egyptian, or oriental than they knew about themselves.

Does Carr propose a similar syllabus to reveal the modern oriental, and how we might fleece him?

Russell
Russell
10 years ago

“I’m surprised that there isn’t anyone trying to argue the case. Genuinely.”

I agree with the points made: learning a language deepens your appreciation of your own language and how language reflects thought, it broadens your knowledge of the world and gives you background understanding of current events, it’s useful in certain occupations. It makes sense, if you live in this part of the world, to learn at least one Asian language – not to, sends a bad message about us to our neighbours.

In my niece’s case it was more than useful – she studied Japanese as well as law at university, worked in very lucrative jobs in Tokyo and Hong Kong and retired at 40! If there are jobs like that going, why shouldn’t Australians have been given the education that equips them to take those opportunities?

I’ve never worked in any position that required language skills, but I’ve often used the little I have – and that was a benefit my employer/community got for having provided me with a free university education. But I guess, in an educated country, there will be people in all sorts of occupations that do the same.

I think Indonesian should be a compulsory subject right through school

Dennis Argall
10 years ago

The problem has indeed been around for a long time – the urging of people to study Asian languages for commercial reasons and the relative absence of employment opportunities rewarding such skills.

I was startled by Patrick’s claim: “Learning languages is easy, you just decide to want to do it and then immerse yourself in the language…how else do you think so many people speak English so well?” Yes, I speak English well, other languages varying degrees less well, but my English is from infancy and my learning of other languages was not easy. There are great individual differences.

I was also struck, in a foreign affairs career, but the seeming ‘penalty’ of many who were great language specialists. For a significant number, their disappearance from the other dimensions of foreign policy and diplomacy into total absorption with language training and maintenance of language did mean for them a disadvantage for them relative to others in their general career environment. Language proficiency, for all but some gifted, makes huge demands on brain space, if it’s not from childhood.

Nick Gruen said children in Japan were puzzled by his question: “What did you have for lunch?” The question is quite vernacular, advanced in its use of ‘have’ (leaving aside accents – though Australians speak English without an accent, it is at times hard for those with accented English to understand us). Perhaps if he had ask “did you eat lunch” What did you eat?” he may have made more progress, step by step. When you are hit by a question in a foreign language it’s hard if you don’t have context, subject.

Russell’s demand for compulsory Indonesian: time was when you could not get into university without English, maths, a science plus a language or history (no mention of economics or commerce). We must return to some such measures to ensure comprehension of history and of other cultures, without which commerce comes to zilch over time. First we have to chuck the pathetic notion that there has to be an ‘economic case’ for everything, including language learning. I have never seen an economic question that did not need better explanation, or could not be better explained, in non-economic terms. We are in Asia, we need to be able to talk to the neighbours including the ones on our own cities. Show respect, get respect. Aha, that has bearing on business relations too…

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

the task to ‘build an economic case’ for a foreign language is not easy for any type of knowledge that is often not directly used in most people’s daily lives and whose value is bound up in the value of the whole set of activities that depend on the communication made possible by language.

How many people who know the difference between an exponential and a sine function actually get to use that knowledge in their jobs? How many ever get to use their ability to spot the difference between a dove and an eagle in their jobs? For many would it matter if they were unaware of the distinction between winter and summer? I would venture the answer to all of these example questions is ‘very few’. Does this mean we should not teach them though? That depends less on the frequency of use but more on how important it is that that an organisation has that knowledge when the need does arise.

To ask of any particular piece of knowledge hence that it is demonstrably used in daily jobs is thus not a useful way to go about showing economic value: there is a role for information that is usually redundant and that is only used infrequently.

The best way to find out what value such skills have is the market itself: markets are a great way to discover the actual value of esoteric knowledge. And Japan and China have plenty of demand for private tuition in English.

Russell
Russell
10 years ago

With some things, all that you need to be convinced of their worth, is the quality of the person making the assertion, the pedigree of the claim. How are you going to be convinced that studying poetry or music will enrich your life – it’s fairly hard to convey that doing these things will exercise and develop you in ways, that, otherwise will probably not be developed. And that that will change your appreciation of life – it will change you. But if the assertion comes from an inspiring person, or has a long history, you might be convinced.

Perhaps it comes down to the value that you place on things. I place a very high value on learning about our neighbours and being able to speak with them, read their books, understand and enjoy their music.

I only studied economics at school. I kept it as a matriculation subject because it was an easy subject to get high marks in – it was one of the subjects I got a ‘distinction’ for and thus helped me win a scholarship to university – but I never found a shred of interest or use in the subject. If I became the Minister for Education I would ditch it and replace it with dance.

Dennis Argall
10 years ago

No, far from exclusionary. Different point: I am in despair at the circumstance in which it seems essential to argue economic merit for everything, when economics ought to be subordinate to social goals. There are certain economic fundamentals, as in the shape of a football field, but really, these days the economic tail wags every dog.

Let me assure you that I could at greater length than sensible here offer any amount of argument derived from education in anthropology and defence studies and career learning including in the shaping of the modern China relationship from 1980 also as ambassador in Beijing for a time etc.

But the question is in which quarter to make the argument (AND the assertions – the 8 second grab of young peoples radio news, the 16 second grab of mature person radio). If you base all on the economic case for business with Asia, most Australians are driven swiftly to consider the real threats to employment which they feel; you would run yourself into the stubborn equivalents of climate deniers, against whom the economic strategies fail. The group who will learn a language and be directly employed with it is elite and tiny, they are not the point, they should rise to the top of a general system. The case on the other hand of needing to engage people better at social and cultural levels, and not just in the moral and cultural pillage of Bali and Phuket is very important. There are popular national assumptions of supremacy versus the region that do not fit with reality and do not serve our interests; your generation and the next, not mine are in jeopardy.

Russell
Russell
10 years ago

“to try to contrast the utility of Asian studies with economic studies”

I was really trying to say that utility isn’t the only measure of value. It may be of great value to me that Australians build better bridges to our neighbours, and encounter, at a deeper level, their cultures. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“To ask of any particular piece of knowledge hence that it is demonstrably used in daily jobs is thus not a useful way to go about showing economic value: there is a role for information that is usually redundant and that is only used infrequently.”

I agree with this, but because we already have so many Chinese speakers in Australia, I’m sure the level of redundency is already higher than many other languages, so if one wanted to make an economic argument, then presumably other languages would come first. Alternatively, everything is entirely different at the level of the individual — if I wanted to make lots of money in Asia, then Mandarin really would help me. In HK, for example, many of the top paying jobs require it — a bit like knowing English in some countries of Europe I guess.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“That’s the kind of world I want to live in.”

Not just you I would hope.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I have an idea which I know Russell will hate but just might work.

Move to a full voucher system and liberalise schooling. More schools might then be able to specialise in fields like Asian language immersion and it might turn out that parents were actually very keen on this.

It might even be profitable ;)