Asian languages in Australia: some hope amid the gloom?

Oct 30, 2022
Students in front of chalkboard holding hands

The study of Asian languages in Australia is in an alarming state. But there are three small signs of possible improvement.

Since 2020 the pricing of university level language courses became cheaper relative to other humanities subjects, a new campaign has been launched explaining the benefits of foreign languages, and a new government is in town. But the base line situation is dire.

There has been a flood of evidence pointing to the decline in languages study in general, including Asian languages, even as the world grows more threatening and complex.

To cite a few:

Australia ranked second-last among 64 countries in the most recent OECD survey of second language study by 15-year old students. Meanwhile, the numbers of Year 12 students taking a second language were:

1982  16.1%

1992  12.5%

2012  10.9%

2022  9.5%

Study of key Asian languages including Japanese, Mandarin, and Indonesian is at its lowest level in at least a decade among Australian Year 12 students with 4.2 per cent of Year 12 students studying one of these three languages as of 2020, down from 5.1 per cent in 2010. The number of students studying Korean and Hindi at Year 12 level remains extremely small too.

At universities, the study of languages by Australian domestic university students was at 20-year low in 2020 with only 2.3 per cent of the nearly 1.1 million domestic students studying a language as part of their degree in 2020. This is down from 3.8 per cent of the national domestic student cohort in 2010.

The decline of Asian language learning by Australian students is particularly dispiriting. In 2020, just one per cent of Australia’s 1.1 million domestic university students were studying an Asian language – down from 1.75 per cent in 2005.

But in 2022 there are three signs that some small improvements may be on the way.

The first is the anticipated impact of the Jobs-ready Graduates Package (JRGP) announced and legislated in 2020. The goal of the JRGP is to send price signals to university students to encourage them to study certain subjects, mostly of a scientific and technological nature, by slashing the cost of those subjects and increasing the prices of others.

The price of languages study was also made much cheaper, a sign that the government regarded language study as a priority area for Australia’s future—but this feature did not attract much public comment and government statements focused on the importance of nursing, education and technology.

The message about the importance of languages study was not communicated to those who most needed to hear it; that is, high school students, and their parents and teachers—to the dismay of groups supporting language study.

So now an online advertising campaign, running from September 2022 to January 2023, has been mounted by an alliance of language supporting groups. The campaign is called ‘Find Your Best Self in Another in Language’, and consists of online video, audio and cartoon materials, streaming on YouTube, Spotify, Instagram and Facebook. It is aimed at school leavers, teachers and parents, and university students.

There are three main themes: employability, self-enrichment, and saving money on university fees.

The third point comes with the new federal government, as Labor governments have a history of interest in Asian languages. In particular, the Keating government started the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) strategy that ran from 1995 to 2002, partially resuscitated by the Rudd government.

A new version of that strategy is now needed to ensure Australians know how to communicate in the fastest growing region of the world. A revived NALSAS of a similar scope, allowing for inflation and growth in the size of the Australian school population since 2002, would cost the Australian Government something like $71 million per year, a modest investment in crucial Asia-literacy skills. Asian Studies groups in Australia have consolidated behind a common proposal to government.

Such a program should be durable and bipartisan. The LNP government produced the New Colombo Plan to support students building their expertise and networks in Asia, and introduced the JRGP

There is pressure from universities for the new government to scrap the JRGP. There is a real danger that if the JRGP were scrapped, the most significant pro-languages policy in a decade would also go.

In late 2022, it seems that the Albanese government has other priorities, and is not now likely to act alter the JRGP, or build a new Asian Languages strategy. Those may come later. For the moment, the hopes for rebuilding languages lie in the JRGP and the modest languages campaign, with a focus on a more comprehensive strategy in the next few years.


For more, read this Article from June 21 2021 on our failure in Asia as viewed nine years ago. The situation is now far worse. John Menadue.

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