Asian language push in disarray
JEWEL TOPSFIELD
May 27, 2010

A RUDD government plan to double the number of year-12 students fluent in Asian languages by 2020 is in crisis, with Indonesian in danger of disappearing from Australian schools.

The state of Asian languages in schools is far worse than feared and continuing to decline, according to a report commissioned by the government.

Despite the government last year launching a $62 million plan for 12 per cent of year-12 students to be fluent in Japanese, Mandarin, Korean or Indonesian by 2020, less than 6 per cent of the students now study these priority languages. Half of the 6 per cent are estimated to be from Asian backgrounds.

The drop-out rate is very high, with 90 per cent of students from non-Asian backgrounds dropping one of the four languages before year 12.

National year-12 enrolments for Indonesian have halved since 2000 to just 1100 students.

Japanese - which was the most widely taught language in Australian schools and universities by 2000 - has had a 20 per cent decrease in participation in the past decade.

The proportion of students with no Chinese family background learning Mandarin - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's language of choice - is rapidly declining.

The report, by the Asia Education Foundation, found the government's target of 12 per cent of year-12 students (about 24,000) leaving school fluent in a priority Asian language would face huge challenges unless there were sweeping changes.

''This equates to a 100 per cent increase in student numbers but does not address the issue of how many of these students achieve fluency,'' said the report, which is the first detailed analysis of Asian languages in schools in 15 years.

Professor Tim Lindsey, the director of the University of Melbourne's Asian Law Centre, said enrolment trends for Indonesian showed it was at risk of disappearing from Australian schools.

''When Indonesia's President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, addressed our Parliament recently, he generously praised Australians for their ability to speak Indonesian. This report proves he was sadly very mistaken.''

He added: ''How can we hope to resolve vital issues for our future like people smuggling, terrorism or climate change, and how can we capitalise on economic growth in Asia, if Australians do not even speak the languages of our own region?''

The report said a national action plan was needed for each of the languages. The reasons for studying them also needed to be better communicated.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority is developing a national curriculum for languages. Its chairman, Barry McGaw, said a discussion paper, due out in a few months, would discuss when language learning should begin.

He said one reason students were turning away from Asian languages in years 11 and 12 was the belief they would be disadvantaged in university entrance scores if competing against students from Asian backgrounds.

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