Phillip Mahnken, University of the Sunshine Coast
Andrew Bolt is right (Herald 28 May). Most Australians in general do not want to learn languages. Greg Sheridan points to the same ‘disturbing truth’ (A nation adrift in Asia literacy. The Australian 27 May 2010).
A “language graveyard” for 222 years, indigenous languages eradicated, migrant languages met with hostility, fear and obstruction, Australia risks intellectual and cultural narrowness, even cerebral inferiority. Yes, learning languages expands your brain capacities, at any age! Seeing Europeans and Asians routinely speak three or four languages, the average Australian traveller feels dumb in his monolingualism.
Our society, culture and education systems fail languages, even as we acknowledge that we need language skills for aid and trade, security, personal enlightenment and to be credible global citizens.
There is top-level bipartisan agreement on this (Hamish McDonald, SMH, 29 May). Now we need bipartisan commitment at state and federal levels to a sustained PR campaign for languages, and unstinting pursuit of excellent teaching and quality learning!
Money alone may produce – in our over-bureaucratised society – more talkfests, policy, planning, budgets and accountability reports. No, money would best be devoted to direct Year 11 and 12 and university languages scholarships, especially for vetted in-country studies. We cannot afford to wait and hope that targets for today’s Grade 4 pupils (in our “ludicrously uncoordinated” languages matrix, as Bolt charges) will result in a new Asia literate generation twelve years hence.
The predictable calls for ”more resources” (Hamish McDonald, SMH, 29 May) could almost be dispensed with, if only motivation and attitudes …. but attitudes are on a feedback loop.
School and university students won’t work hard at things their parents, other educators, principals, community leaders and the media obviously do not care about or deride. Young people will apply themselves at years of football or swimming training, even the mental demands of English, maths, chess, music – languages, too – if their parents, older peers, role models and employers visibly and actively endorse them. Don’t care and your kids won’t try. “Too much effort and too high-risk for too little likely reward”, McDonald cites Tony Abbott. If students want to drop out, principals and parents blame languages teachers for being ineffective, irrelevant or asking too much. Round and round it loops.
Millions of ‘blind Freddies’, like Andrew Bolt, do not see the obvious cognitive and “cultural payoff” of language learning: better spelling and grammar because you reflect on where your own language comes from and how it works, better thinking skills, patience and persistence, better communication skills and intercultural understanding. Languages mediate more and deeper insider information about everyone else, whether you are a vigilant realist, soft diplomat or backpacker sans frontieres.
The only war languages teachers are interested in is the culture war needed to change Australian culture from “fear is good” and gullible consumerism to a healthy, positive, other-interested society with everyone learning other languages. It costs money to counter all that apathy and negativity. It demands willingness and willpower to work on our own children who may prefer (encouraged every dollar of the way by advertisers) to fritter away their mental lifetimes on computer shoot-em-ups, junk TV, the latest pop songs and mags.
Pardon my Spanish, but does Australia have the cojones to do the right thing by its children?
Or is this society and education so commodified that school principals, university decision makers and community opinion shapers will not do a damned thing without putting their hand out for “what’s in it for me?” You wanted a market economy. Your children are standing in it.