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Engaging Australians With Asian Languages: Tweaking the Curriculum

The presence of Asian language programs Down Under in the future looks promising and by tweaking the local Asian languages curriculum, Australians may very well be motivated to learn Asian languages and speak Asian languages outside the classroom, solidifying bilingualism in Australia.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n today’s Asian Century, the ability to speak an Asian language is an advantage for Australians. Asia is increasingly becoming a vital economic, social and cultural partner in the Asia-Pacific region and with such a skill, communicating with neighbouring Asian countries becomes easier.

Australia already has initiatives in place to motivate locals to pick up Asian languages. Over the last few years, The Asia Education Foundation’s (AEF) BRIDGE project established partnerships with schools in China and Indonesia, putting forward opportunities for local students and teachers to engage with their peers who are native Asian language speakers. Between 2008 and 2012, the Australian Government’s National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program provided over $60 million in funding to increase the number of qualified Asian language teachers in Australian classrooms.

But this is arguably not enough. The number of Australians studying Asian languages is declining. Students enrolled in Indonesian language studies dropped 37 percent nationally from 2001 to 2010. Today, fewer high school students who do not speak Chinese at home are learning the language than four years ago.

According to the AEF, “there is no one single solution to building demand for Asian languages”. Rather, tailored and more innovative approaches could encourage Asian language study in Australia.

Providing Australian students with additional tools outside the classroom to acquaint themselves with Asian languages could be the way to go. Instead of utilizing the National Broadband Network to engage Australian classrooms with schools in Asia to support Asian language promotion, schools can offer accredited, personalised language learning e-resources. Given access to such online educational materials at home, students could potentially find it easier to grasp tricky Asian “alphabet” and writing systems at their own leisure outside limited class hours.

There are abundant opportunities for local Asian language students to travel abroad and interact with native Asian language speakers, adding an element of adventure towards studying these languages.

However, there needs to be fun, interactive Asian language curriculum in Australian classrooms to spur local students to study Asian languages. It is good to see Caufield Primary School leading the way – students perform classic stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan in Japanese alongside two hours of Japanese classes each week. This will undoubtedly assist students in gaining confidence pronouncing the complex tones of Asian languages down pat.

Also, such spontaneous language learning classes will serve to make Asian language study consistently appealing and enjoyable for those who do not get opportunities to go abroad.

Given the recent spate of racial attacks towards Asians in Australia, perhaps some Australians hold racial sentiments and prejudices towards this minority group living here. Perhaps this is why some Australians are not interested in studying Asian languages.

Asian customs starkly differ from Western ideals. Clearing up stereotypical misconceptions about Asians through education will not only encourage both Australian students and teachers to see Asian culture as part and parcel of today’s globalised era but also potentially pique their interests in studying or teaching Asian languages as well.

After all, Asian culture is strongly entwined with languages. According to Professor Zong-Qi Cai at the University of Illinois, many Chinese idioms and the beauty of Chinese language are tied with pre-modern tradition.

As part of the AEF’s BRIDGE project in 2012, Australian teachers spent time in China, interacting with language teachers here and learning first-hand about Chinese history and culture. This is definitely a start to engaging Australian teachers with Asian languages. Incorporating on-going Asian cultural activities that provide insight into Asian customs and developments in Asian countries within local language curriculum can offer intriguing cultural dimensions to Asian language study and instill self-assurance in both teachers and students to interact respectfully with their peers in Asia.

Recently in May, the Australian Government pledged $84.6 million towards enhancing students’ access to studying Asian languages. The presence of Asian language programs Down Under in the future looks promising and by tweaking the local Asian languages curriculum, Australians may very well be motivated to learn Asian languages and speak Asian languages outside the classroom, solidifying bilingualism in Australia.

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Photo Credit: Central Reference

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