Professor Krishna Sen, UWA's Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, on last week's move by the Prime Minister in vetoing the nomination of Mr Borrowman, a successful career diplomat, as Australia’s next Ambassador to Germany, on the grounds that he was not fluent in the German language ...
As the first Mandarin speaking Prime Minister, Mr Rudd is the pin-up boy for bi/multi lingual Australians. His intervention in a senior diplomatic appointment on the grounds of language inadequacy should have firmly focussed media attention on the enormous language deficit in the Australian education, particularly higher education, sector. But no such thing happened.
Instead, much of the media reporting that followed the Prime Minister’s ‘Berlin Blockade’ (as the Oz called it) downgraded the PM's language comment as a mere excuse and set about speculating as to what his 'real' motives were.
Some papers pointed out that Australia's top job in Berlin is not a 'language-designated' posting and that Mr Borrowman actually has had ‘some’ training in the language.
Not withstanding the level of linguistic proficiency of the ambassadorial nominee or the level of the PM’s animosity towards a long-standing acquaintance, it does seem bizarre that we would not expect our representative in Germany to speak German fluently, in China to speak Mandarin, in Madrid to speak Spanish, and so on.
Most of the commentary missed the real point: that more Australians need to be vastly proficient in languages other than English. The Age noted in its reporting of the story that only about a quarter of our diplomats speaks a language other than English.
In recent weeks we have seen business leaders call for Asian language education. The health sector is starting to worry about delivery of services to the aging post-war migrant population without far larger numbers of linguistically skilled workers.
The Go8 Languages in Crisis Report published in 2007 summarised the erosion of language teaching and learning at the secondary and tertiary levels across Australia. The report noted a dramatic fall in the number of languages taught at universities (from 66 in 1997 to 29 in 2007) and in the number of students studying languages (just 13 per cent of students studied LOTE in year 12 in 2007). Today those numbers are even lower. This year, two large universities in Victoria and in WA have shut down several language teaching programs.
While the issue of Asian languages has had some traction in the media in recent months, especially the need for more Mandarin and Indonesian teaching and the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools (NALSS) has set a goal of doubling the number of students studying Asian languages by 2015, the funding for this is widely regarded as inadequate.
The problem, though, is much bigger than our trade with Asia or our location on the Asian hinterland. While ‘internationalisation’ is now the mantra of businesses and universities alike, and multi-culturalism has survived the Howard decade, there is a lazy presumption that the nations and their cultures will come to us translated into English. The Cutler and Bradley Reviews, for instance, talk extensively about internationalisation of teaching and research but have little to say about the monoglot nature of Australian education.
At a seminar in Perth attended by academics of several WA universities, a colleague asked the WA Premier Colin Barnett about the importance of the knowledge of Arabic and other languages in supporting WA’s trade relations with Asia, only to be told that most people ‘we’ have to deal with speak English these days.
It may be worth reminding ourselves as an antidote to such complacence that Mandarin Chinese is now the most widely spoken language in the world and English competes with Spanish and Hindi for the next couple of places.
In Western Australia in particular, of the six official languages of the United Nations, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, three - Arabic, Russian and Spanish - are not taught at any of the publicly funded universities.
By contrast the Council of Europe is going beyond bilingualism to what it calls ‘plurilingualism’ – that is, a ‘ repertoire of varieties of language which many individuals use, and is therefore the opposite of monolingualism; it includes [competence in] the language variety referred to as 'mother tongue' or 'first language' and any number of other languages.’
Whatever ‘real’ motives might be ascribed to Rudd’s German intervention, the really important point remains the language deficit of the Australian population to which the PM’s comments draw attention. The budget delivered less than a month ago (which we might see as putting one’s money where one’s mouth is), has no new spending on language education.
If the PM is really serious about training the next generation out of our Anglophonic complacence, he might consider addressing linguistic diversity in the same way that equity of access to universities is addressed in the budget. That is, the universities need to be set targets for producing ‘plurilingual’ graduates and be funded in accordance with their performance against those targets.
- Professor Krishna Sen, Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences