“We will increase the nation’s command of foreign languages.” Australia’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

In his Thursday night (May 10) address-in-reply to the government’s 2012 budget, leader of the opposition Tony Abbott made just one policy announcement. Explicitly mentioning the decline in study of Indonesian, he promised that if the Liberal-National Party coalition achieves government they will increase the nation’s command of foreign languages.

Quote: “Madam Deputy Speaker, too often, government’s focus is on the urgent rather than the important; on what drives tomorrow’s headline rather than on what changes our country for the better.

We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians’ study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline. The proportion of Year 12 students studying a foreign language has dropped from about 40 per cent in the 1960s to about 12 per cent now. 

There are now only about 300 Year 12 Mandarin students who aren’t of Chinese-heritage. Since 2001, there has been a 21 per cent decline in the numbers studying Japanese and a 40 per cent decline in the numbers studying Indonesian.

If Australians are to make their way in the world, we cannot rely on other people speaking our language. Starting in pre-school every student should have an exposure to foreign languages. This will be a generational shift because foreign language speakers will have to be mobilised and because teachers take time to be trained.

Still, the next Coalition government will make a strong start. 

My commitment tonight is to work urgently with the states to ensure that at least 40 per cent of Year 12 students are once more taking a language other than English within a decade.”

Education Minister Peter Garrett was sceptical. Mr Abbott’s policy was, he said, “a rehashed announcement” from the 2010 election.

“There were no details and no dollars,” he said, “just an aspirational target and a vague intention to work with state and territory governments.”

Executive Director of Asialink and the Asia Education Foundation Kathe Kirby said it was reassuring to see bipartisan support emerging for study of Asian languages. In an interview on ABC Radio National (May 11) she pointed out that only 5.8% of Year 12 (final year high school students) are currently studying an Asian language. She argued that Australia has not paid enough attention to the training of foreign language teachers, or to the use of new technologies in foreign language study.

Listen to the complete interview (10 minutes) at: http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2012/05/bst_20120511_0732.mp3 .

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