Why Australia is not speaking with the neighbours

Business leader Nicholas Moore has produced a report on trade and investment in SE Asia for DFAT.

It includes promoting Aus education in the region, work on qualifications recognition, a research grants scheme and a “whole of nation plan to strengthen SouthEast Asia literacy. “

There’s a way to go to get back to where we modestly were, certainly in terms of languages. Liam Prince (Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies) warns Australia has not had a coordinated plan for SE Asian language teaching in schools for a decade.

In apparent consequence, universities have reduced SE Asian language teaching, demonstrated by La Trobe U dropping Indonesian from 2021, while keeping Hindi and Greek after community protests. There are now but a few university students learning the language of our giant near neighbour – all up, in 2021, there were 636 domestic UGs studying southeast Asian languages, down from just under 2100 in 2001. And there are no many coming down the pipe. In 2001 there were nearly 2000 Y12 students studying Vietnamese and Indonesian – twenty years on there were fewer than 1500.

A generation back government was anxious to engage with Asia, with Commonwealth funding for teaching Japanese, Mandarin, Korean and Indonesian in schools.  But the money stopped in 2002, restarted in a smaller way in 2009, before stopping again in 2012 – and we live with the results now. As the Asia Education Foundation put it in a budget bid this year, the five year olds starting school are not equipped for their future.

Equipping them to understand the neighbours is about more than language. Mr Moore makes the point that cultural literacy is about “understanding our region.”  Thus Mr Prince’s programme has recovered from COVID quarantine and sends hundreds of Australian students on short courses to Indonesia.

And Yong Zhao from Uni Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education argues that foreign language courses are rarely sufficiently intensive to provide “near native speaker proficiency,” so learning about cultures should be included.



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