Anyone my age will have seen Ken Henry’s Asian Century White Paper with a certain amount of scepticism, not because we disagree with it, but because this may be the fourth time that the ideas in it have been put forward as the way Australia must go, if it is to be relevant and effective in the future. That feeling must be widespread in departments of education and training across the country. Not content with imposing a national curriculum on them, they will say, the Commonwealth now wants another change, with Asian languages for everyone. We’ve heard all this before. When will it all end? And so on.
In the late 1960s it was Indonesian that was to be the go. Universities set up departments of Indonesian, and teachers acquired new language skills. Schools offered the language and some students invested time and energy in it. All went swimmingly for a while, but at the end , what could you do with the language when you had acquired it? We are highly pragmatic about knowledge, in Australia. It has to be useful, and usefulness means that you get a better job. But there were not a lot of jobs in Australia for which a real capacity in Indonesian was an asset. Yes, you could go to Indonesia and teach, and maybe acquire further knowledge, but Indonesian rates of pay were low. So after a while the numbers wanting to do Indonesian dropped, schools reduced their offerings, and that priority disappeared from the national agenda.
Indonesian and other Asian languages appeared again as ‘musts’ in the 1980s, and then Paul Keating discovered Asia in the 1990s, and it became really important. A genuine autodidact, Paul Keating had to tell everybody how important each new discovery was. Again, there was a flurry of excitement and interest amid the warnings. Australia would be left out of its part of the world if we didn’t build bridges to Asia, and learning Asian languages was the way forward. In that message the new White Paper is, in fact, not at all new.
It may be true that Chinese will be the new world language, but at the moment Asian countries are acquiring English as fast as they can. Most of our foreign students come from Asian countries, and one of the great values they acquire from coming to Australia to study is the acquisition of English as another language. They will get jobs back home where their knowledge of English will be put to good use.
In Australia, however, the way forward is not so clear. To learn Chinese or Japanese is not simply to add another subject. Done properly, these languages require a huge investment of time and can take over one’s educational life. Some of our University of Canberra students acquiring Japanese had the opportunity of going to Japan to polish their skills. For most, it was a real shock to discover how much more they needed to know, practise and improve. Perhaps the best way, were we serious about all this, would be to select a few hundred or so students who had shown proficiency in a given language at school, and send them to Asian universities to acquire their first degrees. It’s worth a try.
And what are the new graduates to do with their skills? The assumption that all this investment in learning will pay off seems rather vague to me. I once met a most impressive man in Shanghai — a government official with excellent English — who told me that the future would require anyone who wanted to be someone to be fluent and literate in Chinese, Japanese and English. He claimed all three. I felt at the time that his presence and confidence were not the result of his language skills, but of his larger personality and drive. When I meet Australians who function well overseas in other languages I feel much the same. They acquire proficiency because they have to, and have the energy to do it well. I don’t meet the ones who give up.
The White Paper is not a waste of time. Our society is used to new claims for government funding, new arguments that this or that has to have top priority. But there has been no sign that the Government is prepared to put serious money into its recommendations. Australia has done well in the fifty years since I first heard a cry like this one, and my guess is that we will continue to do so, while ever we devote real resources to high-quality education for everyone. If the Prime Minister has to choose between Gonski and Henry, my vote is for Gonski.