An unfair and misguided system

24 Sep 2020 | 4 mins

Edition | Teaching and learning Asian languages in Australia

Sharing his personal experience as a student of Mandarin, Liam Tay Kearney highlights some of the flaws in the way language students are placed into ill-defined and misfit ‘boxes’, which play a decisive role in the uptake and continuation of Asian languages at all levels of education.

As a learner of Chinese at the primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational levels, I have experienced firsthand the misguided and inconsistently applied rules which inhibit the uptake of Asian language study here in Western Australia.

While they are intended to preserve a system of 'fairness', these rules are anything but, and create a system of distorted incentives that serves to alienate those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. In turn, this prevents us from mobilising the enormous resources contained in these communities and harms our national interest.

Things start going wrong as students begin to choose their ATAR courses for Year 11 and 12. Students with 'background' in a given language are deemed ineligible to study it as a second language (ironically, even if it is a student’s second language). Instead, these students are forced to study a background language course1, which is often much too difficult for those with only limited 'background' – or drop out.

The system is designed with the intention that students will be perfectly streamed into second-language, 'background', and first-language learners. The reality is not so clear-cut. 

“Students on the margin – and there are many – are the ones who suffer. Often these are the very students who are most interested in pursuing second language study as a means to reconnect with their heritage.”

Liam Tay Kearney

Take the example of Chinese Mandarin (similar minefields would apply to other languages, especially those with significant regional variation or dialect groups). It appears intuitive that a student born in China with two parents from Beijing who grew up speaking Mandarin at home, should be placed in the 'background' stream. However, such clear-cut examples are the exception rather than the rule. Consider the following examples:

  • A student born in Australia, with one parent from Shanghai and one parent from Fujian, who grew up speaking Shanghainese and Hokkien (both mutually unintelligible with Mandarin)

  • A student born in Australia, with two parents from Hong Kong, who grew up listening to Cantonese but cannot speak it

  • A student born in Australia to two parents from Malaysia who speak a hybrid Malay-Hakka-English dialect at home

  • A student born in Singapore to a Tamil-speaking mother and English-speaking father who migrated to Australia at age 10

    These are real cases, all of whom were disqualified from studying Mandarin as a second language despite having zero (or close to zero) prior exposure. There is no one definition for 'background' – backgrounds are as diverse and complex as the languages and cultures that underlie them.

    It is clear that in each of the above cases (and the hundreds of variations in between, all of which represent real families) students would have benefitted enormously had they been afforded the opportunity to pursue second language study. The insensitive sorting instrument implemented by secondary schools denies them this opportunity, and alienates their communities by lumping them all into a single 'Chinese' basket.

    Placing learners into discrete boxes

    Another dilemma arises in that there does not appear to be any consistent referee or decision-making body charged with determining who falls into the ‘background’ category. In my observation, such decisions are left to teachers and individual schools, and are applied inconsistently across schools. Perhaps more concerning is that some teachers and schools may face a moral hazard problem and become biased toward allowing ‘background’ learners into second-language classes to boost scores and performance metrics.

    I have lost count of the number of times I have encountered very clear ‘background’ learners (and sometimes even first-language learners) boasting about how they have ‘hacked’ their way into a second-language course. Those students often leave in their wake a trail of disgruntled, legitimate second-language learners, further undermining the credibility of the system.

    Screening and oversight must be improved so that very clear-cut cases cannot fall through the cracks. The ‘background’ language course should be reserved for these students and only these students. Students with limited or tangential background (e.g. in another dialect) should be allowed to pursue second language study. Not only will this encourage further take-up of language learning and reduce the ‘othering’ of CALD communities, but also allow Australia to access an expanded pool of cultural and linguistic talent.

    Liam Tay Kearney is the 2020 Fulbright Anne Wexler Scholar in Public Policy and a qualified Mandarin-English interpreter.


    1Where such a course is available. Some languages, including Indonesian, have no background course and disqualified students would need to take the even more difficult first language course.

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