Asian languages education: how did we end up in this mess?

Mar 26, 2023
Woman writing hello in Chinese.

How do we end up with an ALP government stupid enough to sign up for the ludicrous AUKUS proposal and the accompanying bogus, China threat scare?

Clearly part of the answer has to be the inability to understand Asia. And this is confirmed when we look at the background of most of the people pushing these stupidities, whether it be in the media, in government or even the universities.

Few have any qualifications in Asian languages or culture. The call we now hear to revive the former zeal and plans for Asian language study and involvement is a very understandable answer.

But then we have to explain why the zeal and the plans have withered. And when we do that we are in danger of having to go back to where we started: the lack of interest in trying to understand Asia. The problem is circular.

But it does not have to be so. Better teaching of Asian languages could break the circle. For some reason people have come to believe that teaching of Asian languages should begin in school. But that is a fallacy. Mastering an Asian language requires an enormous amount of time and commitment. We cannot expect that from school-children.

If I can be allowed to speak from experience, most of us at the age of thirty have the mental ability to master even difficult Asian languages. And the commitment can be provided by the opportunity to use that language as part of one’s career.

Ideally Asian language teaching should be concentrated in universities, as part of a double major – Chinese and law, Japanese and business, and so on. For graduates there should be some organisation in the Asian countries to help graduates into further study or job opportunities.

The Australia-Japan foundation, in the creation of which I was involved, could have served some or all of that function but it quickly degenerated into a weak cultural exchange organisation.

The one university to pick up with this idea and run with it was in West Australia. To date it has provided most of the people I have known in Japan who have successfully combined language with their career choice.

But it too seems since to have lost the people or interest to continue the scheme. We could have had many more success stories in Japan if it or other universities had been more interested in the idea.

And it seems fairly clear that little effort has been made to produce the China experts who could have had the authority to denounce or even prevent the current stupidities.

Gregory Clark has learned Chinese, Russian and Japanese. He is the former president to Tama University in Tokyo and founding vice president of the very successful Akita International University.

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