Tuesday 1 May 2007


Australia's monolingual handicap is a national economic, security and cultural disgrace

It seems to me one of the most damning policy indictments of the Howard era. On page 29 of Saturday’s Australian Financial Review (28 April), Luke Slattery outlined the appalling state of second language learning in Australia and its impact on Australian business now and in the future.

The decline of language learning during the Howard era flies in the face of our growing integration into the regional and world economies.

Australia’s shameful record on language learning has been apparent to me for a long time. In the 1970s and 80s the Catholic High School I attended in multicultural Auburn in Western Sydney was perhaps less than 40% Anglo Australian. The rest of the students were mainly Lebanese, Croation, Italian, Greek, Serbian, Vietnamese and Turkish. Students attending this ethnically diverse school were not given the opportunity to learn a second language. It wasn’t an option for us.

I didn’t become aware of how appalling this was until I travelled in Europe for the first time in the late 80s. It was there I realised that being monolingual was the unusual state rather than the other way around.

Living in Asia during the past 13 years has further heightened my awareness of Australia’s linguistic handicap.

Slattery’s AFR piece focuses on how our second language aversion damages our business competitiveness. Business schools the world over have recognised that second language skills help make better businesses from the CEO down. Most Australians in business are being left behind by this movement towards a multilingual global workplace. Even compared to Great Britain, the United States and New Zealand, Australia is at the bottom of the pile. That puts us at the bottom of the bottom of the pile in the OECD.

Australia’s retarded second language development is not only a handicap to our business development. It has serious security and cultural dimensions also.

Fewer Australians are studying Asian and regional languages and cultures than at the start of the Howard government. This is despite the fact that we now have Australian troops deployed in Timor, The Solomons, Afghanistan and Iraq and we have a pressing security concern with Islamic extremism in Indonesia. That Australia can massively increase defence expenditure without a parallel investment in language and cultural learning represents a terrible diseconomy. From Baghdad to Washington and from Kabul to Dili and Honiara, top military brass reiterate that these battles can’t be won with weapons alone. If language and cultural knowledge are vital weapons in the conflicts Australia is presently engaged in, we should feel vulnerable.

Then there is the simple cultural dimension. By many measures, Australia’s multiculturalism flourishes. How much richer might it be if all Australians had a wider interest and understanding of the many cultures in our midst?

Correcting Australia’s language handicap is a ten-year investment. Our current and future economic, security and cultural needs require that this investment be made quickly.

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