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Learning Asian Languages

Updated on June 10, 2014

With the apparent rise of Asia in the world economically, many governments are keen to push the agenda of Asian language learning. Even if this century doesn't turn out to be an Asian century or Asia-dominated century as some scholars are suggesting, bringing people of different cultures together through language learning and therefore fostering cross-cultural understanding and empathy is undoubtedly an honourable endeavour and good for humanity. However, in the case of some English speaking countries such as Australia, where Asian languages are becoming less popular with students, the motivation behind government support for Asian language literacy needs to be queried.

Why study Asian languages?

Governments nowadays are more likely to include Asian languages in their curriculum's yet whether they will be embraced by students and their parents is another matter. On the whole, Asian language learning is seen as an option rather than a necessity for those not of Asian descent; the arguments used to support it are therefore clearly unpersuasive and lacking in substance. Policymakers use arguments that connect Asian language learning to economic growth and improved education systems, yet whether real evidence of this link exists is unclear. Your average Australian, American or Briton will most likely not enter the realm of international relations and trade and therefore would ultimately lack significant avenues in which to apply their Asian language learning apart from in their local community. Furthermore, English still stands as the primary language of international business and trade, making it unlikely that English speakers will need a supplementary language to engage and communicate with foreign organisations and people. International business between English speaking countries and Asian countries has always been possible without Asian language literacy, yet that's not to say that it wouldn't be beneficial in fostering an extra area of connection between business partners.

English or Asian languages or both?

Asian language advocates also suggest a link between proficiency in Asian language learning and a better grasp of the English language. As English is a language that is in worldwide demand studying it should ultimately take precedence over Asian language learning in English speaking countries such as Australia. Once a student has mastered the English language, this provides an adequate foundation from which to more easily learn other languages. This is apparent in Australia where Asian language learning is generally seen as a valuable pursuit by some but is ultimately secondary to the study of English. Only those of Asian background and those keen on working overseas and in the field of international relations will position it on par with the importance of their English studies.

Conclusion: Why do governments promote Asian languages?

If the benefits of Asian language learning were more clearly advertised and demonstrated by governments then Asian languages would most likely be more popular. The apparent ineffectiveness of arguments for Asian language learning may be connected to the motivations of those advocating them. Often political concerns and the manoeuvring of governments and policymakers take precedence over a real conviction in supporting language learning and cross-cultural connections. In the case of Australia, advocating support for Asian language learning is inextricably linked to its status in Asia, its government's plans to forge economic connections to Asia and even to advocate the idea that Australia is an Asian nation. In this way, policies surrounding Asian languages may merely aim to impress the governments and policymakers of neighbouring Asian countries or key allies. The promotion of Asian language learning therefore becomes a mere tool used by governments to construct connections to Asia which serve the purpose of advancing their economic interests. Countries working towards their own goals is inevitable, but how Asian languages have been co-opted for this purpose undermines any belief we might have that governments genuinely possess an interest in bringing people and cultures closer together through language learning, outside of international political agendas.

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard getting in touch with Asia
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard getting in touch with Asia | Source


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