25 June 2009

Speaking the same language

It's my own fault, I suppose, but not entirely.

First I read this article in The Australian about how Asian languages were all too hard and that there's quite enough cultural richness in French or German for anyone, thank you very much, which is pretty much the philosophy of language education when I was at school (back then it was Japanese that we were all supposed to be learning). The article was prompted by the recent Wesley report on Asia literacy within Australia, which Slattery seems to regard as beside the point.

I studied Indonesian and loved it. Scraped through, am no expert and still haven't been there, but the language was a revelation. No pictographic characters to learn, a simple grammatical structure and consistent spelling, whose phonetics lend themselves both to simple people speaking clearly as well as cheeky word-games. I realise the language has subtleties and poetry that I never got around to, but I still believe it is a great start in learning a language: in refracting back on English in new ways, in getting an insight into a new culture that viewing pictures cannot convey (learning a language is active learning, more than just reciting dates or knowing what Borobudur looks like).

Foolishly, I wrote a letter to The Australian trying to explain this. Note the heading: it's as though you and I should forget about English and jump on this trendy bandwagon called Asian languages. It's lazy sub-editing, part of a lazy Manichean mentality infecting that organisation. You can complain that sub-editing has been under increasing pressure over recent years, having gone from a sinecure to facing the blowtorch of cost-cutting and technological change in a short period of time: but if that's what you get from sub-editing you can't romanticise it too much. Perhaps I should have known better, but too much of that would let them off the hook.

Thankfully for the wider issue, well-informed and elegantly-written pieces by Jamie Mackie and Katherine Davidsen address the issue, but in terms set by Slattery's article and other treatment by The Australian. The release of the Wesley report, at around the same time as the Defence White Paper and the Prime Minister's proposed regional economic organisation, should have been treated as serious policy by a serious newspaper with a serious foreign editor. Instead, there was Slattery's re-hashed article and some guy who complained about ANU's French program. While this coverage was better than the yeah-whatever treatment it received from The Daily Fairfax, it's still inadequate. The Australian likes to complain about Our Educational Standards but I'd respect Kevin Donnelly a lot more if he at least engaged with some of the ideas that Wesley raises.

As far as Wesley's Key Principle 5, bold action is called for:

  • Australian university graduates should be able to sign up for a year's teacher training in any one of the designated countries to teach English, and perhaps whatever it was they graduated in if required by the host country.

  • One year of teaching post-training should reduce the student's FEE-HELP debt by a third.

  • An equivalent number of graduates from designated countries should be invited here to do a year's teacher training.

  • There would be thousands of Australians teaching English throughout Asia, and thousands of Asian-language teachers available to schools here.

This suggestion is the Colombo Plan on steroids. Over time the engagement between Australia and Asian countries would be deep, wide and regarded highly. Australian employers would have a choice of motivated employees with Asian experience, which would eventually work its way into decision-making in various important spheres of life. It promises much for the future of Australia and many other countries; anyone who whinges about the immigration aspects of it is simply not serious about an interesting and prosperous future for this country.

No comments:

Post a Comment