…and so the old joke goes. I followed the Lowy Interpreter’s Asian languages in Australia debate with great interest last year and am glad to see it appears to be a reoccurring theme popping up in the Australia in the Asian Century feature too, how could it not?
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s excellent film The Last Emperor, Reginald F. Johnston, the English tutor to the young Chinese Emperor Pu-Yi, gives his charge some advice related to the importance of language specificity “In order to mean what you say [and more importantly, for it to be understood] you must be able to say what you mean.” To maximise Australia’s impact in the Asian Century and for Australia to be taken more seriously as an ‘Asian player,’ we need to be able to better communicate what we mean and to do so in a number of Asian languages. However, the problem has always been and remains: well where do we start?
Coming from the UK, at the time of my high school education (1996-2001) it was mandatory to follow a language until the age of 16, sadly this is no longer the case- it was dropped by the Labour government in 2004 leading to a massive slump in the numbers taking languages. The compulsory instruction of a language at school, however, didn’t equate to my learning of a language there. Ultimately, teaching a language just isn’t enough.
Thinking back, I remember the greatest hurdle our teachers had was convincing not only us but moreover our parents, that languages were important: “don’t worry about French/Spanish/German, focus on the important subjects” was an expression all too commonly heard not only from my own parents but also the parents of my friends. A further struggle was getting us to connect with not just the language but also the culture that surrounds it- trying to stimulate interest in a foreign language and culture during, from recollection, three one-hour lessons a week in a cold classroom in Norwich was a gargantuan task.
As I look back at the mayhem that was our language classes I am forced to wonder why on earth our teachers bothered to persevere against such stacked odds- I’m sure it wasn’t just for the money. Then I recall my teachers’ genuine love for the language and culture they attempted to give us a glimpse of and how they had described at the beginning of our first lesson that they had come by it- through having the opportunity to experience it themselves and being immersed not only in the language but also the culture, through visiting and experiencing life, for better or worse, in those countries.
Our teachers’ attempts to generate our interest in their own passion, as admirable as their efforts were during those 3 hours a week, was akin to attempting to distil an interest in coffee through description of coffee alone, and telling us we would/should like it- without giving us the opportunity to touch, taste, see, smell, or hear that coffee being made ourselves- they didn’t stand a chance. Some things you just have to experience in their entirety to stimulate a genuine interest, and languages, like coffee- is simply one of those things.
Subsequent to finishing high school, I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t been able to do prior; travel. I am convinced had we all had the opportunity to visit and spend some time absorbing and connecting with the language and culture in one or all of the countries our school offered languages in, then the seeds of interest planted through such a visit, would have stood a better chance of maturing.
Concerning the language debate in Australia, to get back on track two things must happen: a better job need be done at convincing students, but more crucially their parents, the merits in learning a foreign language and its importance. Furthermore, I believe that if serious interest in languages is to be developed by Australian students (and interest is the key to any successful language program, or the learning of anything for that matter), then, in agreement with Hugh White, the debate needs to be focussed on how we get more of them there to visit these counties first. It could never be said with a 100% certainty that genuine interest in the language and culture would naturally follow on from here, but I’d say it’s a good place to start.
Benjamin Moles has recently completed his Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. An edited version of this post appears here as part of the Lowy Interpreter’s Australia in the Asian Century debate.(firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com) Follow on Twitter @bwmoles