Half-baked language policy is al dente

The government’s recently released white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, is heavy on big picture macroeconomic analysis about Australia’s place in Asia and light on concrete policy proposals.

One notable exception is the much-publicised commitment to give all school students access to at least one priority Asian language.

The announcement has been hailed as a ‘win for language’ by members of the government-funded Asia literacy lobby such as Kathe Kirby, executive director of Asialink and the Asia Education Foundation.

Do not believe the hype: The policy is a false victory for the Asia literacy lobby and good news for the rest of us.

The white paper’s Asian languages commitments will add little to existing state and territory language education programs.

Three of the four priority Asian languages students are set to have access to – Mandarin, Indonesian and Japanese – are already offered in all states and territories, while Hindi, the fourth language, is at least offered in NSW and Victoria.

Although not every school in every state and territory has a Mandarin, Indonesian or Japanese teacher, it is not clear the new policy will do much better.

The white paper’s use of the weasel word ‘access’ should immediately raise suspicions. Instead of significantly beefing up Australia’s pool of language teachers, the government is going to use infrastructure, such as the fabled National Broadband Network, to provide students with ‘access’ to priority Asian languages.

This lack of ambition may actually be the policy’s greatest virtue.

As I have argued elsewhere, Asia’s widespread English literacy and multicultural Australia’s extensive Asia literacy mean we do not need to urgently increase the number of students learning Asian languages.

The white paper’s commitment to offering every student the ‘opportunity to undertake a continuous course of study in an Asian language’ is therefore suitably modest.

This gives students the option of learning important language skills without establishing what would be a wasteful and ineffective compulsory language program.

Languages are hard to learn and only useful in select situations.

By offering Asian languages to students on an optional basis, only the students with the necessary enthusiasm to succeed and plans to use their language skills will take the plunge.

As a false victory for the Asia literacy lobby, the white paper is a triumph for commonsense.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Australia’s Asia Literacy Non-Problem.