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Language policy gone loco

Benjamin Herscovitch | 01 February 2013

benjamin-herscovitch.jpgFor every story of sovereign debt risks in Europe and US fiscal woes, there is a reminder of Asia’s bullish economic ascension.

The Liberal Party’s latest policy document, Our Plan – Real Solutions for all Australians, reflects this shift in the world’s centre of economic gravity. Noting that the Asia-Pacific region will be home to 66 per cent of the global middle-class by 2030, the Liberal Party wants Australia to ‘develop more Asia-capable talent.’

As well as a two-way ‘Colombo Plan’ redux that will send Australian students to Asian universities, the policy sets a target of 40 per cent of Year 12 students studying Languages Other Than English (LOTE)—with particular emphasis placed on Asian languages.

Like the discontinued Keating and Rudd government-era initiatives, this latest proposal to increase the number of students studying LOTE flies in the face of the practical considerations at the forefront of students’ minds.

As edifying as learning another language might be, it is unlikely to be an appealing choice for many students trying to edge out their peers in tight ATAR competitions.

On top of the great challenges of absorbing a new and incredibly complex system of communication, many students suffer the added disadvantage of not having the trump card of a native-speaking parent.

Battling through years of tortuous tones or confusing conjugations will hardly seem worth it when their likely competition is exposed to the language every night at the dinner table.

Many students will also conclude that the long-term career benefits of LOTE study are often exaggerated by language study advocates.

As I have argued elsewhere, English will probably remain the global lingua franca in the Asian Century.

There are approximately 2 billion English speakers worldwide; 800 million of which are in Asia—far more than the entire Anglosphere.

One-third of the world’s population is already studying English, and by 2050, four of the six most populous countries in the world (India, the United States, Nigeria and Pakistan) will have English as an official language.

To be sure, studying LOTE is by no means a waste of time. Learning another language provides a rewarding entrée into another culture and is a useful tool for leveraging oneself into careers in diplomacy, business, hospitality, and a host of other fields.

Nevertheless, the difficulty of language learning and the global dominance of English suggest that the target of 40 per cent of Year 12 students studying LOTE is loco.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies