The Asian Century and Learning Chinese in School

November 5, 2012

The Asian Century white paper has had mixed reviews. Its admirers have described it as visionary, others have pointed out that a vision without adequate resources is an hallucination.

But if kickstarting a debate about our relationship with Asia, and not simply at a political level, was one of its key objectives, then it has been a great success. The “Asian century” debate and discussion has been proceeding at full tilt for several weeks now and by and large the contributions have been thoughtful and worthwhile. Indeed it builds on the great work of author Peter Drysdale at the ANU and especially his East Asia Forum.

But the ball is now in the Government’s lap to do something with it and not, as has been its habit, to lose interest after the headlines have died away.

Rather than review the paper as a whole, and prompted by a piece by Primrose Riordan in the AFR yesterday, I want to make some observations about learning foreign languages, especially north Asian foreign languages in schools.

Now in many respects the proposal to have at least one of Chinese, Japanese, Hindi or Indonesian available in Australian schools is a flattering echo of the Coalition’s policy of having 40% of students learning a foreign language as announced in the Budget reply.

But regardless of whose policy idea it is, there are a couple of important reality checks to make especially when the politicians extolling the virtue of learning Asian languages by and large don’t speak one – myself included.

Learning any language at school is valuable but difficult because there simply aren’t enough hours in the school calendar for most students to achieve any real facility – as many Australians have discovered when they tried out their schoolboy or schoolgirl French on their first visit to Paris!

I am going to refer largely to Chinese in this note because of the four Asian languages targeted it is not only the most widely spoken and discussed but also the most complex . It is also the second most widely spoken language at home in Australia and the one with which I am most familiar. However my comments about learning Chinese should not necessarily be taken to be applicable to Japanese, let alone Hindi or Indonesian.

But north Asian languages, and Chinese in particular, are especially difficult. Not only is Chinese a tonal language with dramatic differences in the meaning of a spoken word depending on its tone, but the written language is ideographic by which I mean that the characters used in writing do not attempt to replicate sounds as our alphabet does.

Chinese is very different to European languages. The writing system represents things or ideas, regardless of their manner of pronunciation. This enabled a highly educated administrative elite to communicate with each other over thousands of miles even though their respective spoken languages were incomprehensible.

Japanese uses many Chinese characters but they are pronounced quite differently. A simple term you may see in a railway station is made up of two characters meaning “south exit”. In Chinese it is pronounced “nan ko”. In Japanese it is pronounced “minami guchi”. I discovered this once in Shinjuku Railway Station, utterly lost in a huge crowd and with Lucy and two small children in tow. With no English signs and having no Japanese at all, we could not see where to go, but seeing the characters I knew (with my extremely limited Chinese) as “nan ko” meant I had found the way out!

Similarly the two Chinese characters which mean “eastern capital” are pronounced ‘Tokyo’ in Japanese and “dong jing” in Chinese.

Now what this means is that in order to become even basically literate in Chinese you need to memorise several thousand characters – highly educated Chinese will be able to recognise over ten thousand characters.

Added to this is the way Chinese introduces words from other languages. In most languages a foreign word is simply transliterated, but in Chinese a new term is devised which represents the same idea or thing but does not sound like the foreign word.

For example in Japanese a computer sounds like “konpyuta” – a transliteration. In Chinese it sounds like “dian nao” two characters which mean “electric brain” – a neologism.

This was brought home to me very sharply years ago when I was working on mining projects in Russia and China – commuting from Irkutsk to Shenyang.

Russian mining terms, like many Russian words were transliterated from other European languages – English and often German as I recall – so many of them were recognisable to our Australian team once you knew how to read the Russian cyrillic alphabet. In China however all the terms were new Chinese words and we needed a specialist technical Chinese interpreter equipped with multiple technical dictionaries to make our way through the linguistic thicket.

Now this is not a criticism of the Chinese writing system. In fact, I regard it as a work of pure genius – enabling thousands of years ago before the ability to impose a “national language” to unite a vast territory of mutually incomprehensible spoken languages.

However what this means is that it will be virtually impossible for most Australian students to learn much, if any, Chinese language in school. As Primrose Riordan observes the best way to learn Chinese is by immersion, to go to China and live and study there so that you are learning 24 hours a day rather than two hours every school week.

Added to this is the disheartening experience many students of Chinese have when they are competing in class with children from Chinese families who come to their Chinese studies with a very big head start. There are obviously huge advantages in native Chinese speaking students in our schools sharing their language with other students (and vice versa), but assessment would need to make a clear allowance for or distinction between the native speakers and those learning the language for the first time at school.

In my view, a better approach would be to structure courses so that the emphasis is less on learning the language than on the history, culture and politics of China and the other Asian countries mentioned. The aim should be to achieve a familiarity with the language rather than an unachievable fluency and to use more of the time to ensure that Australians grew up with as good an understanding of the history and culture of China, Japan, India, Indonesia and our other neighbours as my generation did of the history of Europe. Above all the objective should be to develop a life long cultural curiosity.

Australians are already good global citizens. When I was a partner of Goldman Sachs & Co we used to hire more young Australians than we could ever use in Australia precisely because they were, by and large, so comfortable working in different countries and cultures. Growing up in a multicultural country makes Australians especially well equipped for the new global economy.

It is very important too to remember that linguistic fluency does not necessarily entail a knowledge of, let alone empathy for, the culture and history of the country concerned.

As far as language skills are concerned, the approach I am suggesting would hopefully encourage many more Australians to pursue an Asian language in the most effective way – by studying overseas where they can be thoroughly immersed in that foreign language and culture. And the Coalition’s policy of a “reverse Columbo plan” where thousands of Australians will be enabled to study in Asia will clearly support that objective.

Now in case the culture warriors feel that I am sugggesting we should stop studying European languages and history, they should be reassured. Our aim should be to broaden, rather than impose new limits upon, our cultural focus.

Indeed, while this is probably utterly unachievable, I think it is a great shame that we do not offer more students Latin and Greek in our schools not because the joys of Thucydides and Tacitus can only be enjoyed in the original, but rather because Latin and Greek are two of the most important building blocks of our own language and learning even a little Latin and Greek immeasurably improves our understanding of our own language, as indeed does the study of modern European languages.

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