If Australia hopes to be a trusted member of its regional community it must make long-term investments in teaching and learning Asian languages, Liam Prince writes.
By both its own record and current global comparisons, Australia is doing poorly at learning languages.
Australia ranked second-last among 64 countries in the most recent OECD survey of second language study by 15-year old students. As of 2018, only 36.4 per cent of Australian Year 10 students were studying a second language in school.
These numbers aren’t improving either. In 1982, 16.1 per cent of Australian Year 12 students were studying a second language. By 1992 12.5 per cent did so. Two decades on, in 2012, 10.9 per cent of Year 12 students nationally were studying a second language.
According to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), as of 2020, the number of Year 12 students enrolled in languages in Australian schools had declined to 9.5 per cent – or roughly 22,000 of Australia’s 230,000 Year 12 students.
Study of key Asian languages including Japanese, Mandarin, and Indonesian is at its lowest level in at least a decade among Australian Year 12 students with 4.2 per cent of Year 12 students studying one of these three languages as of 2020, down from 5.1 per cent in 2010. The number of students studying Korean and Hindi at Year 12 level remains extremely small too.
Predictably given the decline at upper secondary level, the level of language learning at Australian universities is similarly disheartening.
National student data from the Commonwealth Department of Education indicates that the study of languages by Australian domestic university students was at 20-year low in 2020 with only 2.3 per cent of the nearly 1.1 million domestic students studying a language as part of their degree in 2020. This is down from 3.8 per cent of the national domestic student cohort in 2010.
The decline of Asian language learning by Australian students is particularly dispiriting.
In 2020, just one per cent of Australia’s 1.1 million domestic university students were studying an Asian language – down from 1.75 per cent in 2005.
The decline observed over the past two decades is especially sad given the lofty ambitions and substantial efforts of past Australian governments to increase the study of Asian languages by Australian students.
Between 1995 and 2002, the then Prime Minister Paul Keating initiated the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) strategy that saw $207 million – worth $337 million in today’s dollars – invested in the project.
NALSAS aimed to have 15 per cent of Australian Year 12 students studying a ‘priority Asian language’ – Japanese, Mandarin, Indonesian or Korean – by 2006. This was discontinued by the Howard government in 2002.
The Rudd government partially resuscitated NALSAS in 2009 in the form of the National Asian Languages and Studies in School Program (NALSSP), investing a further $62.5 million – $73.5 million in today’s dollars – between 2009 and 2012. NALSSP was discontinued by the Gillard government in 2012.
Insofar as language learning by school and university students is a measure of Australian curiosity in, and fitness for, engaging with its regional neighbours, the country is in poor and worsening shape.
The reasons for this decline are manifold and complex, but the lack of durable government policy focus bears much responsibility for the failure to shift Australia’s monolingual mindset.
Building Australia’s language capability doesn’t need to, and really shouldn’t, be ideological. This is a discussion, after all, about competence and capability.
The argument for better, more broad-based Asian language literacy among the Australian population is strong. Regardless of who is in power federally, or whether Australia’s external environment is currently benign or more challenging, Australia needs a pool of talented, trained Australians well-versed in the languages and cultures of the region.
Languages deepen understanding of a culture and people with irreplaceable effectiveness. Whether it’s among graduates or staff in Australia’s diplomatic corps, defence department, military, and intelligence agencies, business leaders, or journalists and media professionals, Australia needs experts with language capabilities.
Only with these language skills and the connections they bring can Australia explore new markets, navigate changing global economic conditions, and crucially for government, understand and convey to the public the oscillations of public discourse in China, Indonesia, Japan, India, or Korea with depth and flavour.
Australia needs to start treating its language capability, particularly its Asian language capability, as a strategic asset, crucial to safeguarding its place as a trusted power in the region – which, among other things, it is.
The commitment to building this capability — by necessity of the timeframe involved — requires bipartisan support. Without it, governments are a destined to repeat a boom-and-bust cycle of public investment that has prevailed for the past 30 years. These policy efforts need to be underpinned by an understanding of national security that is broad enough to encompass both traditional military capabilities on the one hand and linguistic competence and cultural understanding of our region on the other.
Australia should, of course, buy or build the military kit required to defend itself. It is just as important to also invest in a properly funded 30-year national Asian language capability plan.
A revived NALSAS of a similar scope, allowing for inflation and growth in the size of the Australian school population since 2002, would cost the Australian Government something like $71 million per year or $2.1 billion over 30 years.
This would be a modest investment, given it would grant the Australian population the discernment to know when its vital interests are actually in peril, and the ability to differentiate actual threats from imagined ones. It would make Australia capable, as a population, of calibrating its national anxiety appropriately.
The history of Australian foreign policy is littered with misjudgements and overreactions underwritten by mistrust of its regional neighbours.
Sure, policymakers could spend the next 30 years spending more national resources on ever more elaborate alarm systems and insurance policies. Indeed, currently there is bipartisan support for just this course of action.
Or they could spend these resources on getting to know their region better. They could make an act of faith in their neighbours and invest in teaching the population how to communicate with them. In the process, they might just find Australia becomes a more trusted and responsible member of a regional community in which it feels increasingly comfortable and at home.