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Asian language learning in Australia was a disgrace 40 years ago. It is now much worse.


An important issue we worked on in the Department (of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs) was foreign language learning. We set the pace in the early 1980s, with not many supporters. I felt quite lonely.

These are extracts about language learning from my autobiography ‘Things you learn along the way’, pp228-31  published in 1999.

An important issue we worked on in the Department (of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs) was foreign language learning. We set the pace in the early 1980s, with not many supporters. I felt quite lonely.

My experience in Japan gave me the energy to try to do something about it. What I saw and felt in Japan was my own language inadequacy. I had some social Japanese but not much more. On too many occasions I found it painfully embarrassing not to be able to communicate, even when I was playing golf with Prime Minister Ohira.

During return visits to Australia from Japan, on leave and consultation, I made many speeches about foreign language learning in Australia, pointing to the dramatic shifts away from foreign languages in universities and schools. Between 1955 and 1980 in the NSW Higher School Certificate, there was a drop from 60 per cent to 18 per cent in students studying a foreign language. To the teachers of Japanese in 1981, I pointed out: ‘20 years ago, 40 per cent of Australian matriculation students took a foreign language. The figure is now about ten per cent. Last year less than three per cent of students sitting for matriculation studied an Asian language.’

We took this issue up in the ​D​epartment ​Of Immigration ​because of my interest and because the only major groups in Australia who were interested in second languages and language development were the European ethnic communities. One of their gifts to Australia was love of their own language. They wanted language maintenance in Australia for their children. So I tried to build a national language policy coalition based on the European ethnic communities in Australia. In 1980, there were more than 1.3 million first-generation migrants of non-English-speaking origin. The ‘top four’ foreign languages were Italian, Greek, ‘Yugoslav’ and German — almost 50 per cent of the total. The only Asian language of significant size was Chinese. I didn’t believe that we could succeed in Asian language development without the support of the European-based ethnic communities. They were pointing the way out of monolingualism.

The ethnic communities responded enthusiastically and we developed a campaign across Australia to  develop a national language policy for schools and universities. In 1981, Ian Macphee and I persuaded Wal Fife, the Minister for Education, to make a joint Cabinet Submission on the development of a national language policy. With Fraser’s support Cabinet agreed that it should be further pursued through the Senate Committee on Education and the Arts, chaired by Senator Baden Teague. That Committee agreed on 25 March 1982 to examine all aspects of language learning and use in Australia.

I tried through Charlie Perkins, who was head of the Aboriginal Affairs Department, to find common ground for preservation of Aboriginal languages. I put to him that one reason why there was increasing support for the preservation of Aboriginal languages and dialects was that there was now a significant continental European community in Australia which was interested in preservation of their own languages. By extension, one could make a strong case that languages should be preserved for all Australians, whether Aborigine, Greek or Chinese.

It was hard building links between Aborigines and ethnic communities. Many Aborigines resented that Asians seemed to have preferential treatment and felt Aborigines were not being asked whether they wanted new migrants coming to Australia. I appreciated that there were problems but I believed that conceptually there was something that we could build on. I think that the retention, inadequate though it is, of Aboriginal languages in Australia owes something to multiculturalism, a policy which Aborigines never embraced.

In a speech on multiculturalism I used a poem by Kath Walker to describe what we were trying to achieve:

Pour your pitcher of wine into the wide river And where is your wine? There is only the river … … Do not ask of us To be deserters, to disown our mother, To change the unchangeable. The gum cannot be changed into the oak. Something is gone: something is surrendered, still We will go forward and learn. Not swamped and lost, watered away, but keeping Our own identity, our pride of race. Pour your pitcher of wine into the wide river And where is your wine? There is only the river.

I made dozens of speeches to business, ethnic and educational groups through 1980 and into 1982, about the need for a national language policy. I proposed that foreign language study should be compulsory at all education levels and a prerequisite for university entrance. There were very encouraging responses in newspaper editorials, almost all of them drawing attention to the continuing advocacy on languages that I had commenced in Japan.

The first National Language Conference was organised by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils, in Canberra in October 1982, to bring all of our work together and to provide a platform for the future. It turned out to be a disaster, as one’s best laid plans often are. Minister Hodges was really not on board as far as Asia, multiculturalism and language were concerned. I didn’t speak at the conference launch as the Minister was the obvious keynote speaker. We prepared some speech notes for him but he didn’t use them. The thrust of his speech was ‘What’s all this about a national language policy? The world is all learning English. We don’t need to change’. My friends in the ethnic communities groaned.

Despite the ministerial setback we had created momentum. Public debate was under way; other organisations were picking up the issue. More and more emphasis came on to the need for Asian languages.

A major breakthrough came when the Senate Committee on Education and the Arts reported in February 1985. I had left the department by then. The committee made two major recommendations. The first was that language policies in Australia should be developed on four guiding principles: competence in English; maintenance and development of languages other than English; provision of services in languages other than English; and opportunities for learning second languages. The second major finding was that language policies should be coordinated at the national level.The development of a national language policy was under way after five years of speech-making and lobbying. I

In 1987, the Australian Government adopted a national policy on languages and in 1994, the Council of Australian Governments, comprising the federal, state and territory governments, adopted a report on funding of Asian languages in Australian schools and universities which I felt was the culmination of the work we had commenced 14 years earlier. There is now funding through commonwealth and state programs for Asian priority languages, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Indonesian. In his 1999 Budget, Peter Costello announced $30 million funding for these priority languages over the next three years.

A new concern, however, is that while young Australians are now learning Asian languages as never before many Australian employers are reluctant to employ them. Many boards and CEOs don’t appreciate the value of Asian language skills. Our Asian linguists are now returning to Asia or turning to multinational companies in Australia to use their language skills. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a telephone call from a young Australian who has become proficient in an Asian language, asking me, ‘After the encouragement I had to learn an Asian language, why are Australian companies so uninterested?’ I don’t have an adequate answer, without dumping on Australian business.

In the early 1980s, apart from the ethnic communities, there weren’t many who were talking about foreign languages, just a few academics and a few businessmen. Professor Stephen FitzGerald, formerly Australian Ambassador in China, was one. We were probably the two principal advocates of Asian languages. He was an expert in the Chinese language and I wasn’t an expert at all. In retrospect, perhaps I had one advantage. Because of my own inadequacy I felt personally and keenly how important language skills were. Later when I went to Qantas it was a major priority, developing Asian language skills for cabin crew and customer contact staff. (But later that was largely abandoned)

These are extracts from my autobiography ‘Things you learn along the way’, pp228-31  published in 1999.


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  1. If business and governments do not believe in the importance of Asia to Australia, then why should young people seek to learn an Asian language. Dumb and dumber



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