Should we all speak an Asian language?


Monica Tan

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Aussie students practise Asian language skills

As the government pushes for more Asian languages in school, here three young Australians with English as a first language, show off their Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian skills.

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On her 22nd birthday, Andrea Myles drew up a list of potential countries she was interested in visiting. She had grown up in the Blue Mountains, a place she describes as "very monocultural" and like her parents, had never once left Australia's golden shores. But after three years of university and a neuroscience degree in the bag, Andrea felt the time was right to change that. 

She deliberately picked a country that in many ways was the polar opposite of her own. "I wanted to go somewhere that was operating on a completely different paradigm," she says. A country that was old, to Australia's new, with a population 61 times that of Australia. A place where her blonde hair and blue eyes would draw stares. There she would witness immense social and economic changes at bewildering speeds, and feel a love/hate tension she later called "intoxicating".

Andrea was going to China.

Pictured: National director of the Engaging China Project, Andrea Myles.

Pictured: National director of the Engaging China Project, Andrea Myles.

That three-month backpacking trip led her west from Beijing, deep into the country's mountainous Tibetan regions and eventually wound up in the majority Muslim province of Xinijang. "It was such an adventure. With just enough beautiful, cultural experiences and Indiana Jones, rock and roll-ness about it, that it really got me hooked," says Andrea. And in the 11 years that have since passed, she has mastered Mandarin and returned to the country several times including one year studying in the southern city of Kunming. Now based in Sydney, her current role as national director of the Engaging China Project has turned a passion for China into a career.


The project's purpose? To "make China sexy" to Australian high school students. "When you think about what makes something sexy, it's not because it's perfect or there's no problems with it. China's like your 'bad boy' boyfriend. He can be so infuriating but also so cool, and you want to leave but you can't," Andrea laughs.

Andrea is a prime example of an 'Asia literate' Australian - a group that is currently small, but that the Australian government hopes will grow. Last month, they released their white paper 'Australia in the Asian Century' as a policy response to the region's meteoric rise. One of the key takeouts was a push for more Asian languages in schools. Schools Education Minister Peter Garrett's office confirmed via email that in two years we'll start to see students as early as kindergarten given the opportunity to study an Asian language, with Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese identified as priority languages.

This comes in the face of dire figures regarding the Asian language skills of Australia's current generation of school students. As Geoff Winestock in the Financial Review pointed out recently, "in the NSW higher school certificate last year there were twice as many people (1,300) studying French as Chinese. In fact, the gap is much bigger than that since only 55 of the Chinese students were not already background Chinese speakers. To underline the absurdity, Latin, a very hard and very dead language, was studied by four times more NSW kids than Chinese."

Nor is Indonesian proving popular, with Sid Myer of Asia Link telling the ABC, "the number of students that are studying Indonesian [...] is almost going to be zero by the year 2020, if not before. The trend line is all down." Indonesia not only lies in close proximity to Australia, it is also the world's fourth most populous country and 16th largest economy in terms of GDP. Over the last decade the country has been experiencing a steady growth rate, with 2011 at 6.46%.

Elena Williams, 29 could very well be a window into what kind of future lies ahead for a new generation of Indonesian-speaking Australian high school graduates. Originally from Adelaide, Elena was one of the lucky few that managed to start learning Indonesian in primary school, continuing all the way to her final year of high school. She continued to pursue the language in her tertiary education and now works at UN Women in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Elena says there's no way she could be doing her current work if she didn't speak Indonesian. "It's really opened so many doors for me. I go out into villages, I work with different NGOs and I speak with ministers - all in Indonesian. I love that!" But being Asia literate entails more than language skills, it's also about cultural awareness. Although as Elena points out the former often leads to the latter. "Learning a language gives you access to places and cultures you would never have had access to otherwise."

'Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia' is currently one of three cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian curriculum, joining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures and sustainability. Might this mean we'll soon see "Journey to the West" - one of four great classical novels of Chinese literature - join Shakespeare and Dickens on "English" reading lists? Or in history a study of Ashoka, one of India's greatest emperors?

And for Elena it is not only about looking back, but also about looking forward. "I look at what's happening here in fashion, design and architecture, and think god, this would be so unreal if Australian creatives could come over and just see what's happening," she says, excitedly. Jakarta joins Beijing, Seoul, Delhi and Bangkok as emerging creative hubs with the potential to unleash an explosion of art and ideas, of which the ubiquitous 'Gangnam Style' from Korean rapper Psy will prove to be nothing but a quickly-forgotten precursor.

Elena and Andrea represent what a truly Asia-literate Australia might look like: a future where the average Aussie will be bi-lingual or even tri-lingual (a feat many Europeans already manage to carry off). Their love of Asia goes deeper than riding on the coattails of the roaring Asian economies, as they bridge the gap between their home country and a region that is so close, yet culturally feels very, very far. "Everyone's talking about Indonesia's rising middle class. And while that's very important we need to think not just in terms of the economy but also of our friendship," says Elena.

Andrea echoes similar sentiments. "It's taken an incredible growth story to realise 'hey, we're living in the Asia-Pacific!' And I think it's important we have the passion and capabilities to engage with our neighbours. Everybody needs good neighbours." 

Her unintended reference to the long-running Australian television show makes her laugh. "Think about that. We have the show Neighbours, and it's all white people on it."

Video produced by Monica & Grace Tan