Importing Australia’s Asia literacy

Politicians, commentators and academics are all saying Australia’s supposed inability to speak Asian languages and understand Asian cultures imperils our prosperity and security.

My new report, released this week, shows that notwithstanding doubts about Australia’s prosperity and security in the Asian Century, extra spending to improve Asia literacy is unnecessary.

Thanks to our multicultural society’s readymade Asia literacy, Australia is already well-positioned to prosper as global economic power moves to Asia.

According to the 2011 Census, approximately 2.2 million people (10% of the population) speak Asian languages at home.

Important Asian languages are very well represented: There are more than 650,000 speakers of Chinese languages, as well as 305,000 or so speakers of Indian languages; 233,000 Vietnamese speakers; 137,000 speakers of Filipino languages; 80,000 Korean speakers; 56,000 Indonesian speakers; and 44,000 Japanese speakers.

The number of people who speak Asian languages at home is also a useful proxy for Asian cultural literacy.

There is a good chance that someone who speaks an Asian language at home will have a familial connection to the language, and as a result, will likely have some level of Asian cultural literacy.

This large pool of Asia literacy is set to grow.

With Indian migrants making up 15.7% of the total 2011–12 immigration program, India is Australia’s largest source of permanent migrants. Chinese migrants comprised 13.8% of the immigration program, making China the number two source country.

Overall, 7 of the top 10 source countries in Australia’s 2011–12 immigration program were from Asia: India, China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam.

Although not everyone who speaks an Asian language at home will speak it well or have a strong cultural connection with Asia, the census data may actually underplay Australia’s Asia literacy.

Given that there are probably many Asian languages speakers who do not have the opportunity to speak them at home, there may be more than 2.2 million Asia literate people in Australia.

Concerns about Australia’s apparently poor Asia literacy are largely a façade with little substance.

As an increasingly Asia literate immigration nation, Australia is well-placed to prosper in the Asian Century.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies, and the author of the new report, Australia's Asia Literacy Non-Problem.