What Makes You Choose a Foreign Language? ‘Australia in the Asia Century’ White Paper

There’s been a lot of buzz around the new ‘Australia in the Asia Century’ white paper that’s been released by the Australian Federal Government recently. In a nutshell, Australia wants to prioritise Asian language learning and have all Australian students access to one of four Asian ‘priority’ languages (I’ve also got a poll at the end of the post!)

These languages are

  • Mandarin
  • Hindi
  • Japanese
  • Indonesian

The Government sees the world as entering an ‘Asian’ century, the region is growing and being placed in the Asia region, Australians should be sufficient in Asian languages and cultures for business opportunities and diplomatic reasons. The pros and cons of this paper have already been discussed widely on the internet, among bloggers and foreign language institutions, here are a few of the good ones:

1. AFMLTA’s response (Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association)

2. Jennie at ielanguages blog post

3. Crikey’s linguist blogger William Steed

4. ABC News Report 

But I’m here to continue a point brought up by Jennie at ie languages.com. As much as I appreciate this focus on Asian language learning, I don’t want Australia to become focused on what you ‘should’ learn rather than what you ‘want’ to learn. I don’t want Australia to become like the US, where the language to learn is Spanish and is sometimes the only one offered (something Jennie pointed out)

Even though the most minimal of foreign language learning can be beneficial, and students will probably learn at least a lot about Asian cultures (although in my opinion, Australian schools are already very good at teaching students that) without motivation from the students themselves, they’ll be able to have only the most basic of conversations in these countries if they’re lucky.

This white paper seems to not be focusing on what students want to learn, but instead pushing them into the ‘you should learn this language’ box. I’ve never liked this attitude to language learning, and I think the Government will face an uphill battle if they keep going down this road.

I go back to thinking why I ended up becoming proficient in a language like French. It wasn’t because it was easy (believe me, the challenge brought me to tears of frustration a few times), it wasn’t because I had an amazing French teacher (although good teaching is important) it was because I wanted to learn French.

Ever since I could remember, I was obsessed with France. I dreamed of being French, I would say every French word I could think of and I dreamed of seeing the Eiffel Tower. I blame watching countless episodes of Madeline 😉

Madeline… who lived the perfect French life! 😀

I was fascinated by the French language and culture, and that’s what made me want to learn the language.

In Primary School I started language learning in Grade Prep (age 5 in Australia) and learned Japanese. I then went to a high school which offered Japanese and French in Year 7 (age 13). Both languages were compulsory for one year, then you had to choose one language and continue learning it until Year 9 (age 15). I obviously ended up choosing French over Japanese, even though I was good at Japanese as well, I didn’t have the choice to learn both.

Now many years later, I’m picking up Japanese again and it’ll be my second foreign language.  I was thinking of learning Spanish, but ended up choosing Japanese instead. Many people look at me like I’m an idiot when I tell them this. They ask me “Why would you learn Japanese?” and things like…

“But it’s only spoken in one country!”

“It’s a really hard language to learn”

“But you already speak French, wouldn’t Spanish be easier?”

“Spanish is the third-most spoken language in the world”

Blah blah blah…..

All of these reasons are valid, but just like I was with French, I am drawn to the Japanese language and culture more than Spanish at this time. I have always loved Japanese culture and if I wasn’t forced to give up learning the language in high school I would have kept going (now THAT’S a flaw the Federal Government should put an end to in the Australian education system)

Yes, I do speak French which would in theory make Spanish easier to learn, but having the motivation to learn a particular language, isn’t that what should drive a decision when choosing a foreign language?

Having that drive will make you practice and struggle with challenging grammatical concepts until you just get it.

I can also think of a bunch of reason’s to learn Japanese. Japan is the second largest economy in the world, Japanese is in the Top 10 most spoken languages in the world and the Japanese seem to be like the French in that you see them everywhere no matter what country you’re in! 🙂

Access to both – a priority European language and a priority Asian language would be to me, an ideal education system, plus the opportunity to study two or three foreign languages all the way through high school if the student wants to. There are plenty of students in Europe who are forced to study two, or even three foreign languages – it’s definitely not ‘too hard’ which seems to be the common misconception in Australian schools.

However I do see in Europe that it’s always European languages that are taught, and rarely Asian languages even though Arabic-speaking countries are not that far away. In France it even comes down to which region you live in, so if you live in the south of France you can only learn Spanish or Italian, if you live in the north you’ll rarely find an Italian class but always a German or Dutch class. Do I understand why this is the case? Absolutely – but I liked that where I grew up it was common to study either a European or an Asian language.

I always liked that both European and Asian languages were widely taught in Australia (the top 10 most-taught foreign languages include 5 European languages and 5 Asian) and I definitely don’t want that to go away!

I know that European languages, particularly French and Italian are very popular with Australian students, and I don’t think that will change quickly. However it’s still very important to focus on what languages students want to learn, not just what they should learn, particularly in Australia.

This is going to be a controversial statement, and one I don’t like admitting to being a foreign-language learner.

The vast majority of Australian students speak English as their first language, they grow up believing that everyone speaks English and they don’t really need to know a language other than English – and they’re right.

That doesn’t mean it is not beneficial, or worth-while to take the time to learn a foreign language and I wish more people did, but it’s hard to convince English-speakers ‘you should learn this language’ because we all know they don’t really need to – wherever they go in the world, they will likely get by. Sad, but true.

So the best way I think to get English speakers to speak other languages, is to focus on the want rather than the should. What and why do they want to learn a particular language? Is it really to do business or is it that dream of living abroad for a year which motivates them?

Some students may want to learn Italian more than Spanish, because they like the sound of  Italian more, or their grandparents speak it – and why is that not valid motivation? Even if in the grand scheme of things, Italian is a ‘small’ language?

If a native-English speaker wants to become proficient in a foreign language, any foreign language, shouldn’t that be enough?


4 thoughts on “What Makes You Choose a Foreign Language? ‘Australia in the Asia Century’ White Paper

  1. Really enjoyed this post, it offers an interesting perspective. I’ll make sure to link to it in my upcoming blog post.

  2. Pingback: Three birds with one stone? An ageing Australia, the Asian Century and reducing personal dementia risk. « A Passionate Premise

  3. Pingback: Why I Quit French (at Australian universities) | Oh Sacré Bleu !

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