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What needs to be done to position Australian students for this Asian century? May 20, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics.
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by Professor Michael Singh

Michael Singh’s look at the implications of the Asian century for Education in Australia offers a more extended blog than is usual. Enjoy!

Many Australians currently study one or more of the many Asian languages and cultures, either formally or informally as part of their family or job networks. However, there is a strong view that more Australians must study the languages and cultures of our neighbours. But why must they?

 Policy-makers claim that schools must help society gain the Asia-capabilities business needs through helping more Australian students learn Asian languages to get the better socioeconomic positions they deserve.

 The revitalisation of Asia and the growing global competition for high skilled jobs makes it more important than ever we provide a worldly education for our school students, including an education that looks at the world through Asian perspectives. Moreover, countries such as China are experiencing a renaissance as a global centre for knowledge production in key fields of innovation such as sustainability.  Much of this internationally important knowledge is being produced in Chinese.

 Seemingly, these are reasonable claims. However, they fail to speak directly to school children and their parents and teachers to persuade them on their terms for undertaking second language education. Policy-makers must recognise and directly engage the interests of learners and educators. Policy-makers must produce policies that explicitly address the reasons schools students from Kindergarten to Year 12 have for learning a second language, as much as the educational reasons for teaching languages.

 Is there a clear need for graduates to be able to speak Asian languages and work in Asia high on the list of priorities for business?

 Australian businesses need graduates willing and able to work in Asia. Accountants, architectures, lawyers and doctors as well as those working in property economics to business, engineering and biotechnology need to find ways to become familiar with Asia. The Australian Industry Group has found that businesses rate having senior staff capable of working cross-culturally in Asia very highly. They also rate having a strategy for Asian operations, strong local partnerships in Asia and knowledge of Asian business operations. The law firm King & Wood Mallesons has called for a national policy directed at promoting and supporting people-to-people exchanges in education and the professions. For business leaders the major challenge they face in engaging Asia more fully is attracting, retaining and leveraging “Asia-capable” talent. What kind of talent might that be?

 Writing in The Jakarta Post (02 November 2012), Dewi Anggraeni observes that the Australians desire to learn from Asian countries does not seem to be “motivated by the belief that they have some good things to teach Australia, but that Australia needs to know how they operate to avoid “pitfalls” in doing business with them, or in dealing in other matters, such as regional security. To think that countries in Asia are unable to sense this patronizing attitude is downright careless.”

 What is the current situation?

 The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) identified as a major change in the world that is placing new demands on Australian teacher and school education, is that:

          India, China and other Asian nations are growing and their influence on the world is increasing. Australians need to become ‘Asia literate’, engaging and building strong relationships with Asia.

 Goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration is, in part, that:

          All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens [who] are able to relate to and communicate across cultures, especially the cultures and countries of Asia.

 In the Australian Curriculum the cross-curriculum priority of “Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” will ensure that students learn about and recognise the diversity within and between the countries of the Asia region. They will develop knowledge and understanding of Asian societies, cultures, beliefs and environments, and  the  connections between the peoples of Asia, Australia, and the rest of the world. Asia literacy provides students with the skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region (ACARA).

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s guidelines for developing the Australian Languages Curriculum now make provision for first, background and second language learners.

Currently, it is Chinese-Australians – teachers and students – in senior secondary schools across the country who are now making a substantial contribution to securing Australia’s linguistic and intellectual engagement with speakers of Chinese within Australia, in China and around the world.

In addition, volunteer university graduates from China are supporting schools in Western Sydney in stimulating the learning of Chinese as a second language. With the support of these volunteers who are studying to be teacher-researchers, some 4,017 primary students and 1,358 secondary students in the Region’s schools are able to learn Chinese. This initiative is part of a 10 year industry/university training partnership established by the University of Western Sydney, the Ningbo Municipal Education Bureau in China and the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities.

A key implication of not carrying out this agenda is that it will exacerbate a situation in which Australian educational institutions have not produced a significant cohort of young Australians completing secondary education with deep knowledge of our region or high levels of proficiency in Asian languages. … the share of Australian students studying languages, including many Asian languages, is small and has fallen in recent times. (Australia in the Asian Century Implementation Task Force, 2012: 167, 168).

How might we now understand this “Asian Century”?

Some readers may remember when we studied the world through the lens of the British Empire, and then through an American lens. The idea of the “Asia Century” presents a new lens through which to look at the world. No matter what the crisis in Europe, the USA or Australia is, everything now seems to be linked to what is happening in Asia, more so than ever before. So increasing the depth and breadth of Australia’s intellectual engagement with a worldly Asia provides a lens through which to better understand the effects that China and India are having on Russia, Brazil and South Africa, and together what this means for Australia.

What does the “Asian Century” mean for languages education?

As we enter this Asian Century a deep engagement with multilingualism in general and a specific capacity in Asian languages are crucial for ever more Australians, to provide the grounds for collaborative knowledge production between Asia and Australia. However, it would be naïve to think this means ignoring other languages.

Among the impediments to the further development of languages education in Australia is the mistaken presumption that European languages are not being taught and used throughout Asia; this view limits Australia’s ability to meet the challenges of the changing multilingual landscape presented by this Asian Century.

It is significant for Australian languages education to know that China continues to teach a range of languages, including French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. For example, since 2005, a further seventy-three higher education institutions in China have established French as a university major.

In recent years, bilateral trade and investment by Chinese enterprises in French-speaking Africa have increased rapidly. Learning French is integral to the ability of China to do business in Africa (Benin, Burkina-Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, and Togo), along with Europe (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Monaco, Switzerland, as well as Canada) well as Haiti, Seychelles and Vanuatu. So if you speak Portuguese which is spoken in China’s Macau you speak an Asian language!

Making multilingualism constitutive of Australia’s education system in order to navigate the Asian Century means exerting pressures to permit variations in responses to, and engagement with whatever linguistic opportunities present themselves.

What language policies might work?

Key reasons for the failure of some previous language policies are the monolingual focus on linguistic differences and the insistence on teaching only the target language, ignoring learners’ first language. However, many Australian school students who are just beginning to learn a second language need a policy for programs that focuses on the social and linguistic similarities between English and particular Asian languages. This is an important education policy issue if beginning learners are to experience success and the rewards necessary to stimulate their desire for further language learning.

 Further, with over half a million local and international multilingual students in Australian higher education institutions, there needs to be formal recognition of their multilingual communicative capabilities. With over 150 different languages spoken by Australia’s higher education students, formal acknowledgement of their linguistic capabilities as part of higher education programs would provide a valued and valuable stimulus to second language learning. This policy would enhance Australia’s positioning in the global multilingual economies and knowledge networks.

 Where can we go from a history of failure?

One of the intractable educational problems is to make Asian languages learnable for beginning second language learners in English speaking Australia. This is a preferable focus to the insistence on Asian languages being difficult for them to acquire, and that they must be acquired by ignoring students’ first language.

There is a need for universities, education systems and schools – in Australia and throughout Asia – to collaborate in the education of teacher-researchers who are capable of investigating ways to make Asian languages learnable for second language learners in Australia. This means finding ways to make Asian languages part of the local everyday languages of Australian school communities. Little is known about how to make these languages learnable.

The Western Sydney/Ningbo teacher-researcher partnership is producing evidence-driven knowledge that can embed Asian languages into everyday school communities through teaching/learning strategies that build on students’ existing knowledge of English and spur their self-confidence for continued language learning.

Policy needs to support programs and pedagogies that stimulate the interests of beginners at all level of schooling, to engage their enthusiasms, and to reward them with successful language learning experiences.

 What are the challenges educators face in intellectually engaging more fully in Asia?

A major challenge Australian students face in learning to engage more thoughtfully with people in different parts of Asia is their chance to participate in second language education programs and pedagogies that make Asian languages learnable. Policy needs to support teacher-researchers in developing pedagogies that work to reduce the ‘costs’ for beginning learners of Asian language so as not to make it a difficult and unfulfilling experience.

A key challenge for educational institutions is to develop teaching/learning activities and forms of assessment that reward students’ multilingualism and promote post-monolingual education such as the following:

  • Translation and translations: the systematic use of translations to highlight similarities and/or differences in the meanings of concepts, metaphors and images about educational issues under study.
  • Using evidence of multilingual online communicative capabilities: multilingual transcripts from online communication and/or from recorded face-to-face communication.
  • Demonstrating linguistically alternative ways in which a text can be written: alternative ways in which a multilingual text could be written, a multilingual speech act could be realized, a multilingual description could be performed, a multilingual dialogue could be conducted and what the similarity/difference in meaning would be.
  • Juxtaposing multilingual texts with similar informational content: different styles or genres of multilingual texts (e.g. poetry, proverbs, riddles), and have students consider how different styles convey the same information, albeit with different meanings.
  • Analysing affective and stylistic responses to multilingual texts: for analysing their own affective and stylistic reactions to multilingual texts containing non-Western modes of critique (involving at least one language they do not read, including texts written by school children).

 What should be our goals for institutionalising language education across the educational system?

To institutionalise language education across the educational system, innovative research-oriented school-engaged teacher-researcher education should aim for:

  • collaboration among Australia’s Federal and State/Territory Government agencies, Australian universities, local education authorities and clusters of primary and secondary schools which commit to a 12 year program
  • making the second language learning of students the primary focus of the education of teacher-researchers through education system/school/ university partnerships
  • directly engaging with educational concepts in the target Asian language as part of the education of language teacher-researchers
  • disseminating the evidence-driven knowledge generated by these teacher-researchers of their interventions in English and the target Asian language
  • assessing the education of these teacher-researchers in terms of its direct impact on school students’ second language learning and the students’ desire to continue studying the language to the end of Year 12
  • a scholarship program for local and international teacher-researchers that ensures the best graduates are registrable as teachers and secure full-time employment in Australian schools.

 What needs to be done to offer Asian languages, widely, economically and effectively?

Together education systems, schools and universities – in Australia and from across Asia – need to collaborate in delivering on the large-scale, long-term investment policy-makers promise to provide, and to do so through practical, on-the-job partnerships that educate teacher-researchers.

Teacher-research will provide a firm base for second language education in Australian schools and inspire the confidence of children, parents, teachers – and policy-makers.

This requires a teacher accreditation system that registers the graduates of such research-oriented, school engaged teacher education programs for employment in all States and Territories of Australia.

Michael Singh is a Professor in the Centre for Educational Research, School of Education at the University of Western Sydney 


1. tayyaba munawar - May 21, 2013

a valuable asset for researchers and policy makers

2. svenwilms - May 23, 2013

I came to Australia about a year and a half ago, after spending 10 years in China teaching specialized English courses at a university and one of the top 5 high schools in the country. I have had considerable exposure to the education system, and to students of all ages in China.
Professor Singh’s article struck a chord with me, and I want to comment about the urgency for Australian students (well, students everywhere) to become more “Asia literate”. The Melbourne Declaration sounds nice, but I wonder if there is a real sense of commitment to it. It’s already five years old, isn’t it? What is there to show for it?
In reading Professor Singh’s article I was left with the feeling that things might almost be headed in the wrong direction. He clearly outlined the issues and proposed solutions that are sensible; it’s somewhat surprising that many of these common sense initiatives are not already in place. Knowing what I do about education in China in terms of teaching foreign languages, I think it’s fair to say that to date, by comparison, Australia indeed has a “history of failure”.
In China the goal of second language education was accomplished directly and effectively through the imposition of mandatory second language exams. Can something similar be done in Australia? It’s hard to imagine why not, if the government and the people really want it.
Certainly, an ideal path would be the creation of a 12-year program, as proposed. The earlier in life students can begin, the better.
It’s interesting to consider Australia’s geographic position–an English speaking country which has in the past been so isolated through distance from other English speaking countries that it was in some respects on outside looking in–almost Global South, except it’s a developed country. With the economic shift from West to East, to Asia, the game has changed. Australia is now closer to the action. It could now be perceived as part of a new Global East, the main region of this new century’s economic growth and power.
To ignore the advantage of this proximity and the opportunities it offers Australia could be a mistake with enduring consequences. Properly exploited, this opportunity could potentially lead to a period of prosperity. If parents and students could be made to realize the importance of this opportunity, perhaps then the government would have the political will to commit the funds necessary to go forward, for the long-term good.
“Do not ignore the need to act now, lest later be too late.”

Professor Singh hit the bull’s eye with everything he wrote. Is anybody listening to this guy?

Wu Ting - May 29, 2013

I really enjoy reading his article as well as your comment. “Asia literacy” is of great significance for Australian. I am a member of ROSETE group one. I studies in UWS in 2008 for Master of Education Honours. I also taught Chinese in Plumpton Education Communities for one and a half years. I still remembered that when I first came to some primary classrooms students keep asking me some questions. They asked me whether China have McDonalds. Whether China have a lot of cars?

I was shocked for these questions to be honest. China has developed dramatically in recent 20 years. But some local students in Australia have very limited knowledge of China.
This is just one of the examples that we Chinese students found that Australians need to have more knowledge of Asia.

3. Ed Riley - May 31, 2013

Those looking at the history of foreign-language education in the 20th century and the methods of teaching (such as those related below) might be tempted to think that it is a history of failure. Very few students in U.S. universities who have a foreign language as a major manage to reach something called “minimum professional proficiency”. Even the “reading knowledge” required for a PhD degree is comparable only to what second-year language students read and only very few researchers who are native English speakers can read and assess information written in languages other than English. Even a number of famous linguists are monolingual.

4. Professor Zhao Jie - June 2, 2013

To whom it may concern:

I am an English teacher in Jilin University, China. I happened to read Professor M. Singh’s blog, from University of Western Sydney, Australia, at a time when some of the universities in Australia are intending to close some of the Asian Studies majors, including Chinese. I am shocked by this. As an internationally minded teacher, I would like to claim a right to comment on Australia’s languages policy, and express some of my ideas about it based on my own experiences.

Learning Chinese for Australians is as important and useful as it is that we Chinese learn your language, English. Australia needs to know China as much as China needs to know the Australia – and the rest of the world. It is well known that China has gained the status to one of the economic powers in the world. China is now mainstream, and so too in the Chinese language (Putonghua). This means there must be more economic cooperation between China and many other countries, including Australia. Only by becoming ‘China literate’, can Australian school students and university graduates be better able to work well in China – and with China throughout the world – in any fields.

On our campus at Jilin University, I know that overseas students from Australia with knowledge of the Chinese language and culture perform much better in their studies than those who don’t. They also go onto get interesting and well-paid jobs all around the world – very well paid jobs compared to my salary as a Professor – because they are proficient in English and Chinese. Here at Jilin University their Chinese language and cultural knowledge helps them communicate better with both their teachers and classmates, and they are better able to keep in touch with – and learn from – the local people. This in return empowers them for a better employment in China – and in Chinese ventures around the world – if they wish to do so.

I know a couple of Australians working in one of my friend’s company here in Changchun (remember the movie, The Last Emperor – it was set here). Their knowledge of the Chinese language and culture has helped them greatly – all the way along their life journey since they landed here. I am sure it would be the same for other Australians working or living in China – or elsewhere throughout the world, where ever Chinese businesses are now operating.

It is true that Chinese language can be made difficult to learn. However, it is learnable, and it is fun to learn it. The ROSETE Program at the University of Western Sydney has a strong focus on making Chinese learnable – teaching forms of Chinese that relate to English speaking learners;’ everyday interests; ensuring they have the reward of successful language learning, and building in them the desire to continue learning the language.

My three years of experience of teaching Chinese to college students in South Korea also support my claim that foreigners can learn Chinese, if taught appropriately. With proper teaching methods Chinese lessons can be very interesting and fruitful. All over the world, more and more people are actually succeeding in learning Chinese. Besides, the government of China is investing both financially and morally to support Chinese teaching and learning overseas. Many volunteers are working hard in many countries to make Chinese learnable. The University of Western Sydney’s volunteer program with the Ningbo Municipal Education Bureau and the New South Wales Department of Education is truly unique in the world. That’s right, here is no other program like it in the world; and it continues to grow in its success. The ROSETE Partnership is at the forefront of producing evidence-driven knowledge of how to make Chinese for English speaking school students in English speaking countries.

One of my colleagues is in the USA as a Visiting Scholar. She emailed recently that she is now to provide a Chinese language program for both the students and the college faculty. Her students’ ages vary greatly, from boys and girls to mothers and fathers. She says the Chinese class is fun, and both the learners and teachers are very enthusiastic. With Visiting Scholars in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney I know Professor Singh would like to arrange a similar program for interested staff and students.

Australia is going against the trend to in cutting Asian Studies courses. Hopefully, the University of Western Sydney will grow its school/university Chinese partnership and have more of its own students studying Chinese and studying in China. This is in mutual interest of both learners and teachers in Australia and China.

5. PHD candidate in Univeristy of Southern Queensland Wu Ting - June 3, 2013

I am a member of ROSETE program. I undertook a Master of Education Honours in UWS in 2008. I think the evidence-driven learning and teaching concept has changed my view of education and will continue to play a significant impact on my life. The ROSETE partnership is at the forefront of education in the world as Pro. Zhao Jie stated. The outcome of my research has multiple significance. Firstly, I finished my master study in Australia. I finished my 80,000 words thesis which is a treasure. The evidence of my research broadened my mind to Australian curriculum and pedagogy. I read a lot of journal articles about Constructivism and so on. Secondly, I got teaching experiences which is very special. It offered me an opportunity to apply what I learnt from books to guide my teaching practice. To put it in another way, my research guided my teaching and improve my teaching proficiency. On the other hand, my teaching practice in schools helped me to identify research problems and test the research theory.

The ROSETE program helps me to build up my competitive edge and enables me to get a lot of opportunities to work in China and abroad. When I go back to China, I taught Chinese in two international schools for three years. I applied for PHD study in University of Southern Queensland. I received full scholarship from USQ to continue my journey in research.

Personally, I think learning Chinese is very important not only for local Australians but for Chinese Australians who immigrated to Australia. Learning and teaching Chinese is in line with Australian policy that is Asia Engagement. Cutting the funding of Chinese language is against Australian Asian Engagement policy. I agree with Pro. Zhao Jie that there is a strong common interest for both China and Australia to continue to make Chinese language flourish!

6. QJ - June 5, 2013

I am more concerned about insufficient international and intercultural understanding, which often leads to conflicts, sometimes as serious as terrorist attacks. Multilingualism certainly helps bridge that gap to an extent. Learning a language increases the scope, fluidity and connectedness of one’s thinking. An essential pathway, although not the only one, to a better and more peaceful world. Not being lofty here, simply thinking that’s the most practical thing for all humanity.

7. Hu Jipeng - June 8, 2013

Australia universities are canceling Asian languages programs:
Is really what the ‘Asian Century’ means?

After reading Professor Singh’s blog, I was surprised to learn that some universities in Australia would like to cancel some programs on Asian languages, specifically at Curtin University and the University of Canberra.

At Curtin University Asian Studies is to be phased out! This is major disappointment.

At the University of Canberra it seems as though it is the increased forced contribution (i.e. internal tax) back to the central university administration of 64% or more over the three years is contributing to putting their programs in the red. And this is continuing despite even Japanese Government authorities’ commitment to providing financial support – just as the Ningbo Municipal Education Bureau (China) substantially underwrites the UWS program Professor Singh leads.

Learning one foreign language, especially one of the major languages in the world, makes a person more competitive in this globalizing society.

Australia is not only geographically close to Asia but also has intense economic relations with Asian countries. China and Japan are the two largest trading partners of Australia, followed by the USA. South Korea, Singapore, India, Thailand. Countries in Northeast Asia all play important roles in foreign trade Australia – and especially for Australian universities – as so many of their international, migrant and refugee students come from Asia.

It would be of great help for the career development of Australians to learn one or more of those Asian languages. Not in the least because the peoples of Asia now expect to engage people throughout the world in our languages – time have changed!

Increasingly people in Asia have an expectation that more and more Australians need to have a basic communication capability in our languages. More and more we expect Australian who really want to do business in our countries – and the countries where we do business around the world – to be proficient in our languages – and the languages of countries where we do business – such as French in western Africa. There will still be work for highly skilled interpreters and translators.

Australian universities can’t continue to take fees from Asian students and not make need excellent programs in Asian languages platforms for Australians to learn those Asian languages.

Language is the carrier of knowledge and culture. Australian’s need to study Asian knowledge and learn about Asian cultures; learning Asian language is indispensable to having a deep understanding of places and people in China – as elsewhere.

In translation there is inevitably loosing much important information – the depth of meaning cannot be conveyed easily original meaning – the original message is distorted – in many cases the beauty of the ideas is destroyed.

After 20 years of increasing exchanges between Australia and Asian countries, due to the rapid economic development of Asia, one would expect Australian universities to be structuring programs that make learning Asian languages core – mainstream. For over instance, over the past two decades teacher education degrees have increased from Bachelors to Masters-level degree; that is they have increased in the time required for completion of a teacher education program by at least one full academic year. This has provided universities with the additional necessary time to make Australia’s new educational needs a core part of these program … Government reports have stated this to be a requirement for years, dating back at least to the Rudd Report of the early 1990s. However, Universities have just used this extra time to prop up other disciplines that have little relevance to the requirements for education in these new times.

In China, students start learning English at elementary school; this serves as the foundation of their further study in higher education. More and more have a good command of the language after graduating from university. It is because they are bilingual – and not just because they speak English – they have the edge over others in the fierce competition for jobs in these wildly globalizing times. It is the same in other Asian countries: multilingualism is the norm in today’s world. If Australian youth just speak English in this multilingual world, they will find it harder to compete with the high skilled, highly educated workers from Asian countries. Ironically, Australia is actually contributing to our capacity to be bilingual, while seemingly refusing to modernize its education system to engage with a multilingual world.

These are the important issues and innovative strategies that Professor Singh’s blog speaks to.

With the rapid economic development and the rising international status, Chinese knowledge, culture and language gaining increasing educational attention all over the world; more and more foreigners are learning Chinese. Australia universities seem to have little regard for this: why would a University create a Master of Teaching degree for “21st century learning” and not make language learning compulsory – especially in a university where students speak 150 or more different languages already?

The Chinese language is becoming more popular is many countries with which Australia competes. The demand of learning other world languages is also increasing with the constant increase of overall strength of other countries in South Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. What Professor Singh’s program offers is an innovative way of making Chinese learnable for English speaking school students who otherwise don’t think Chinese is worth learning or fear that Chinese can’t be learnt by them. Such innovative strategies need to be developed at the university level.

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