From Asian languages to Asian literacy: A review of Asian languages practice in Australia

24 Sep 2020 | 4 mins

Edition | Teaching and learning Asian languages in Australia

Zheng Fu recaps on Australian Languages Education policy developments relevant to the study of Asian languages and Asian literacy on federal and state and territory levels, and puts forward some practical suggestions on how to move forward.

Studies of Asia have been an important concern in Australia since the early 1970s in response to Australia’s deep economic ties with Asian countries and shared regional proximity. Consequently, advocacy for the development of Asian literacy has been commonplace in the field of Australian Languages Education over the past few decades. As defined in the White Paper of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), being Asia literate means possessing knowledge, skills and understandings of the histories, geographies, arts, cultures and languages of the diverse Asian region. This broader definition of literacy reflects a renewed vision of Australian scholars in language learning and teaching.

From the 1970s to the 2010s, a large number of research reports and documents were produced, and some important projects launched, including Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future (1994)NALSAS Strategy, Partnership for Change (1998)National Statement for Engaging Young Australians with Asia in Australian Schools (2006), The Melbourne Declaration Goals for Young Australians (2008), The White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century (2012), and so forth. The rationale for Asia literacy has varied and included inter alia: multiculturalism, linguistic diversity, geographical proximity to Asian regions and the increasingly close economic interdependence with Asian countries.

A re-energised effort since 2016

In 2016, the Australian curriculum was revised in response to the national strategy of engagement with Asia, and learners of languages in Australia were categorised in three groups: second language learners, background language learners and first language learners.

Following the development of national plans and strategies for languages education, the education departments of the states and territories drew up their own plans and accompanying principles for language teaching and learning. Three patterns can be found:

  • Some states and territories formulated their own explicit plans or strategies, including ACT,NSW,NT, VIC, QLD.

  • Some states followed the National Curriculum as the central document to guide their languages education, for example SA and WA.

  • Tasmania supplemented the National Plan with related multicultural policies to cover languages education.

In general, the significance of learning Asian languages is highlighted in the policies and plans of all the states and territories.

The target set by The National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) is that, “by 2020, at least 12% of students will exit Year 12 with a fluency in one of the target Asian languages sufficient for engaging in trade and commerce in Asia and/or university study”. However, the present status of Asian languages education seems far from satisfactory.

“By 2018, only 10.2% of Year 12 students were enrolled in all languages, and the retention rate of language learners is relatively low. A large gap looms between the vision and the practice.”

Based on what has been discussed above, the following suggestions should be helpful, effective and timely:

  • It is necessary to combine macro national strategies of language educations with micro localised ones in various states and territories.

  • Some ‘non-language’ elements, such as culture and art, should be incorporated into the curriculum and syllabus in order to stimulate learners’ interest in Asian countries, contributing to their development of language proficiency and cultural competence.

  • It is advisable to achieve a balance of instrumental value and intellectual or cultural value in languages education. Too much emphasis on the practical aspects will deprive learners of curiosity, interest and even pleasure in acquiring language skills.<

  • It is important to realise the longer-term sustainable and coordinated development of languages education strategies. Discontinuity in strategies might result in negative impacts. The establishment of better pathways might also be considered for language learners if they chose to continue to study languages at Year 12 or beyond.

  • A proper incentive system is encouraged. The present bonus system seems to have neglected the different degrees of difficulty of various languages. Most Asian languages, for example, descend from completely different grammatical, etymological and writing systems from European languages, and in the case of Chinese language, the pictographic writing system of Chinese language will pose more difficulties for learners who are more familiar with the alphabetic system.

Zheng Fu

Dr Zheng Fu is an associate professor from the School of International Studies, Zhejiang University in China. Presently she works as Associate Director of the Confucius Institute at UWA.

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