China Literacy

There have been constant calls from within the business, policy, academic and education sectors for Australia to increase its ‘China literacy’ — an imprecise concept typically described as being the knowledge and skills necessary to ‘understand’ China and navigate cross-cultural interactions.

Much China literacy discourse takes place within broader discussions about ‘Asia literacy’ and monolingualism in Australian society, with the China literacy debate often focusing on whether or not the Australian government should support the widespread (or universal) learning of Chinese by Australian school students. This is possibly because most official ‘cultural literacy’ initiatives have used language enrolments as a proxy measure for China literacy. Though many affirm that Chinese language skills are important for understanding Chinese culture, media and intelligence, many others believe language should not be ‘conflated with cultural studies’ and that it is an inexact gauge of understanding. They argue that attention should first be focused on increasing broader China interest and knowledge through initiatives such as the ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’ national curriculum priority.

Political support for Chinese language education has been inconsistent. In 1994, the Keating government introduced the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy (NALSAS), but despite its success in doubling Asian language enrolments its A$30 million annual funding was cut by the Howard government in 2002. While campaigning before his election as prime minister in 2007, Kevin Rudd [topic link page] proclaimed it was an Australian ‘national priority’ to ‘become the most Asia-literate country in the Western world’, and, in 2008, he implemented the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP), providing A$62.4 million over four years. The Gillard government’s [topic link page] Australia in the Asian Century White Paper [topic link page] set the goal of all Australian students having continuous access to one of four ‘priority’ Asian languages, including Chinese, by 2025. However, only A$15.2 million of funding was committed, and critics pointed out the contradiction that Gillard had orchestrated ‘the total collapse of Asian language study’ by axing the NALSSP in 2012. In opposition in May 2012, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott lamented the ‘precipitous decline’ of Asian language learning and announced a ten-year target of forty percent of Year 12 students studying languages, though no policy has been forthcoming as of May 2015. Both the Gillard and Abbott governments [topic link page] instituted respective Asia study grant schemes for tertiary students: AsiaBound and the New Colombo Plan [topic link page: Education].

Nonetheless, promoting Chinese language study remains central to Australia’s China literacy debate. Supporters of extensive Chinese teaching argue that mainstream Chinese proficiency in Australia would overcome ‘cultural obstacles between Australia and China’ and (Chinese) ‘sentiment that Australia is a difficult place to do business’, significantly enhancing bilateral business relations, service delivery and investment opportunities [topic link page: Economic Relations]. Otherwise, Australia will be ‘left behind’ by other countries dealing with China and ‘suffer the economic consequences’, or perhaps find itself unprepared and under-informed in an evolving regional order in which trade and diplomacy are increasingly conducted in Chinese. (Or be forced to rely on the biased filters of what Geremie Barmé calls ‘translated China’).

However, opposing arguments have tended to hold more sway in public debate: a comprehensive Chinese program would be onerously expensive; Australians do not need to learn Chinese to do business with China because English is ‘dominant’ and ‘money talks’; Chinese is ‘too hard’ to learn competently at school; there is a shortage of demand for Chinese from Australian students or parents; the primary and secondary education sectors are already overburdened; Australia cannot train enough competent Chinese teachers and migrant teachers display poor pedagogy; Australia already possesses significant under-utilised China literacy in the form of Chinese Australians (650,000 of whom speak a Chinese language); not enough Australian employers value Chinese language skills to make it worth a student’s effort; and long-term variations in economic fortunes (for example, Japan’s Great Stagnation) means it is shortsighted to pick national language ‘winners’.

It is still uncommon for Australians of a non-Chinese background to learn Chinese. While there are over 5000 Year 12 students taking Chinese each year (and the number is rising), making it the sixth most-taught language in Australia, less than five percent of Australian schools teach Chinese. Furthermore, the authoritative report The Current State of Chinese Language Education in Australian Schools found that Chinese classes are ‘overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese’, with ninety-four per cent of Year 12 students being ‘first language’ or ‘heritage language’ speakers. The report finds this to be a key reason why non-Chinese Australians quit studying Chinese — because they cannot get good grades competing with native speakers. A full ninety-four percent of Chinese learners drop out before Year 12 and final year enrolments by non-background speakers are in the low hundreds. This means that, excluding first language and heritage speakers, more Year 12 students study Latin than Chinese as a second language.


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