The response to the new white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, just released by the federal government, has been underwhelming to say the least. Which is a pity.
There’s little doubt that the 21st century belongs to Asia (however that murky geographic concept is defined), and most of the recommendations of Ken Henry’s panel seem worthy, if uncosted. During the next century, most of the world’s middle class will be Asian, and Australia naturally wants to tap in – in trade, education, tourism and cultural exchange.
So far, so motherhood. But one issue the report raised, and the PM emphasised in launching the report, has come in for a lot of criticism. “All students will have continuous access to a priority Asian language – Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.”
Over the years there have other attempts to persuade our Anglophone kids to knuckle down and learn an Asian language, but apart from a few ambitious nerds (Kevin Rudd, anyone?) most high school students baulk at the difficulties, especially when their matriculation results depend on how they go in a variety of subjects. Dean Ashenden nails the problem here – and goes on to point out that
To the extent that we do need Asian-language speakers for business or other purposes, why on earth get schools to produce them? We’ve already got them.
According to the census, we have 330,000 Mandarin speakers, 111,000 Hindi, 56,000 Indonesian, 44,000 Japanese, 80,000 Korean, 233,000 Vietnamese and 37,000 Thai.
But if teaching the next generation Asian languages is a flawed endeavour, how did earlier generations of English-speakers deal with the problem of talking to Asia?