Japanese has been Australia’s most studied foreign language in schools for a number of years. Japanese is neither a traditional school language subject such as French and Latin, nor a community language such as Italian and Greek. Japanese is distant from English linguistically and culturally. Thus it is remarkable that Australia is fourth place on the world map of the number of learners of Japanese by country, and in second place in terms of the ratio of learners in the total population. The 2009 Japan Foundation survey reveals one in 83 Australians were currently learning Japanese. Considering that this trend has been lasting for well over a decade, cumulative numbers of those who have at one point studied Japanese must be quite large.
This picture of a large number of learners and past learners of Japanese however needs to be looked at closely to find two trends. The first is the decline in numbers. Two Japan Foundation surveys conducted in 2006 and 2009 on Japanese language education in Australia showed a 25% decline in overall learner population in the three years. The second is the concentration of learners at beginner proficiency level. Of the 280 thousand learners of Japanese in the country, 96% are in schools, which produce beginners or at highest, lower intermediate proficiency speakers of Japanese. Of the three percent of the learners who are located in universities, at most, only one third are estimated to achieve advanced professional proficiency. That is less than 1% of the total learner population.
For a nation, foreign language education serves two major purposes. Firstly, learning a foreign language provides young learners with a different language system, new ways of thinking, links to foreign cultures and people, and as a result, broader and more critical perspectives of their own world and beyond, i.e., basic ingredients of becoming a global citizen. For this purpose, Japanese is perfect for young Australian learners, as it is vastly different from English. Secondly, foreign language education will produce those who are professionally proficient in target languages and who can contribute to nation building in government, business and other areas using the language. For this purpose, Japanese is critical for Australia, as Japan is Australia’s significant partner both economically and strategically.
So far, Japanese language education in Australia has done very well, especially in the above-mentioned first purpose. One in ten Australian school children are currently learning Japanese. We need to stop the decline of the learner population and to maintain the good work of providing our youngsters with the basics to become global citizens. For the second purpose, we have not done enough in developing high proficiency speakers of Japanese. We need to provide both learning pathways and career pathways to young learners so that they can envisage their future Japanese speaking selves and work towards their vision.Chihiro Kinoshita Thomson Professor of Japanese Studies School of International Studies University of New South Wales.