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By: Tim Mayfield in Melbourne, Australia

The latest Australian census data is in and it makes for interesting reading. Of particular note, 72 per cent of residents reported speaking only English at home, down from nearly 77 per cent in 2011. Moreover, for the first time since colonisation, most of the Australians who were born overseas came from Asia rather than Europe.

So what to make of these shifts?

On the face of it, the data indicates that Australia is becoming an even more diverse society with greater links into our immediate region and beyond. However, these numbers don’t tell the full story.

To properly assess where we are at as a nation, we need to critically examine the quality of the engagement between Australia’s ethnic communities, as well as the depth of our links into Asia (given that our immediate neighbourhood is so crucial both in terms of trade but also as the major source of new immigrants).

According to these criteria, there is much work to be done. The shortfall is borne out by a quick examination of the state of Australia’s second-language teaching from early childhood through to tertiary level.

Australia is not just failing at languages (especially Asian languages), we are failing spectacularly. The percentage of students studying a foreign language in Year 12 has decreased from 40 per cent in 1960 to around 10 per cent in 2016 – and this includes native speakers.

Simply put, we must change our collective mind-set around the importance of languages to our continued wealth and prosperity.

It just doesn’t make sense in the context of our increasing interconnectedness with the global community both at home and abroad.

Of course, one could argue (and plenty do) that because Australia’s foreign language capability is on the rise, driven by immigration, there is a decreasing need to commit time and resources to second language learning.

There are several issues with this perspective. The first is that our collective commitment to multiculturalism should not start and end with those who arrive on our shores. For multiculturalism to work, it requires genuine commitment to engagement and mutual understanding from all sides.

Learning a second language is both an end in itself but also an effective proxy for the kind of intercultural understanding that will be essential if Australia is to continue to thrive in its diversity. Assistant Professor Ruth Fielding argued recently that Australia’s multilingual diversity is being stifled by a monolingual culture and approach to curriculum in schools.

By engaging with an unfamiliar language, students are also engaging with the culture and history that comes with it. In doing so, they gain perspective into a world beyond their immediate experience, greater insight into their own communities and curiosity to broaden their horizons.

This latter point is crucial when it comes to preparing the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow. Simply put, we must change our collective mind-set around the importance of languages to our continued wealth and prosperity.

The reality is that nearly all young Australians are likely to be working either in highly culturally diverse communities in Australia or in global teams with global clients and markets. Bilingualism is a skill most people will benefit from, and is something that other countries have recognised for years. That’s why Australia is now lagging at the very back of the OECD pack when it comes to the time our school students spend learning a second language.

We have been coasting for too long on the natural advantages of being a developed nation, proficient in the world’s lingua franca, and with an economy powered by an abundance of natural resources.

That is all changing. As Australia’s economy continues to transition to services, so too do the requirements of our workforce. New opportunities will be driven by evolving skills and possessing a second, third, or even fourth language will be prime among these.

It is therefore a matter of great urgency that governments at all levels get the policy settings right. At the moment, our track record on languages is abysmal. The first step to a solution is admitting there is a problem. The second is developing a road map for this vexed area of education policy. The Asia Education Foundation (AEF) has undertaken considerable research to address this second aspect, especially at the senior secondary level.

We advocate expanding opportunities to study languages in senior secondary certification structures. Simultaneously, governments and schools need to provide access to high quality languages programs to build and sustain student participation.

These efforts must be supported by engagement with all relevant parties (including students, parents and educators) to recognise and promote the value and utility of languages. At a higher level, governments and sector bodies should collaborate nationally to support languages planning and implementation in a unified way across the country.

The question is who within government and the education sector will drive this change? 

Tim Mayfield is the Executive Director of the Asia Education Foundation at the University of Melbourne. This article has been republished with permission.

Published in Education

Commentary by Binoy Kampmark in Melbourne, Australia

While the shattering Brexit vote of June had a deservedly chilling impact in Brussels and other European capitals, the grey suits have been busy pushing various lines on the consequences Britain faces for leaving the European Union. The technocrats in Europe will be making sure they make things as difficult as possible. 

Back in London, rhetoric and deflection is in heavy supply. Canada may offer a model, especially in the area of immigration. 

Various multinational companies find the notion of uncertainty certain economic death.  Japanese and U.S. firms, for instance, have sought clarity on what passporting arrangements will exist in a post-Brexit order.  So far, they have gotten little other than poorly minted assurances. 

The defect of those assurances lies in the inability on the part of officials in London to know exactly what the EU will do. The EU, in turn, is also wondering what that position will manifest.  To make war, it is always wise to know the strategy of your opponent.

As the Economist reports, the view in Europe on Britain’s logistical quandary has become “the sexiest file in town”. It is daring, it is challenging, and it seems to some, near hopeless.  The hopeless element is not incurred because of pessimism; it merely seems that all sides are having each other on, mixing the bag of seduction with that of indecency.

Everyone is accusing the other of feeding uncertainty.  EU officials have been accused of creating it for not clarifying the position of British expats in Europe; Donald Tusk of the European Council has said in kind that the British decision to leave the EU was the cause of all the headaches, in turn causing EU expats in Britain troubling concern.

“Would you not agree,” he claimed supremely in a note released on Twitter, “that the only source of anxiety and uncertainty is rather the decision on Brexit?”  When officials need a worthy scapegoat, the unruly outcome of the democratic will always be there.

Theresa May’s government has been telling the British public that there will be no “soft” or “hard” Brexit, but a “red, white, and blue Brexit.”  That particularly statement, made during a visit to attend the Gulf Co-operation Council, was a weak retort to the mooted idea that a “grey Brexit” was circulating as an idea. 

The idea of a more ambiguous greying Brexit has its roots in the offices of the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Brexit secretary, David Davis.  (The May cabinet these days is an uncertain one.)  In what started looking like projections from a set of colour crayons, variants of Brexit were being thrown around from the lightest form (“white Brexit”) which would supposedly not defeat the referendum’s aim while keeping Britain in the EU market system, to that of the darkest (“black Brexit”), which would terrify those providing financial services.

The greyer variant would entail an analogous arrangement with that of Canada:  limits on immigration favouring skilled migrants would take place alongside access to various parts of the free zone.

May’s response to the crayon version of Brexit was to steer the cause back to the bromides of false patriotism, and perhaps false hope.  “I’m interested in all these terms that have been identified – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, black Brexit, white Brexit, grey Brexit – and actually what we should be looking for is a red, white, and blue Brexit.”

Such flag-driven terms are meaningless, vacuous, even silly.  The consistency of what May’s version of Brexit is vague, and again suggests a different message for a different audience.  There is no need to define the strategy, merely the outcome.  “That is the right deal for the United Kingdom, what is going to be the right relationship for the UK with the European Union once we’ve left.”

On that score, the Labour opposition did, at the very least, secure a promise from May that her government publish the Brexit plan before the formalities of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty are triggered.  That plan is bound to spawn a new industry, creating specialists on how to evacuate from a tightly bound, financial and social compact.

The plan, for the moment, remains shrouded.  As Italy’s Europe minister, Sandro Gozi, explained, the case in London seemed “far from clear”.  As was the starting basis for negotiations.  “It seems there are disagreements and divisions within the cabinet. There are many uncertainties.”

May’s message to Michel Barnier, charged with the task of Brexit from the EU side, will be a different one from that directed to British audiences. There are few choices on the table, with Barnier insisting that “time will be very short” for the negotiation period.  “It’s clear that the period of actual negotiations will be shorter than two years.  All in all, there will be less than 18 months to negotiate.”

Barnier’s promises have verged on threatening, though they have been delivered with tepid calm.  For one, he is busying himself identifying a common position with all of the 27 remaining members in the EU towards Britain. This should be completed by the end of January.  

The unmistakable emphasis here is that of inferiority: the British decision to leave, Barnier promises, will be saddled with consequences, placing the country in a position worse than it would be if it remains.  “Being in the EU comes with rights and benefits.  The single market and its four freedoms are indivisible.  Cherry picking is not an option.”

Barnier might have also reflected on the other side of the European problem: the populist challenge to grey, bureaucratic technocracy; the need for institutional reform that does more than utter financial messages and praise the God Market or Civil Servant King.  The May government may well be struggling with its strategy on exit, but the mandarins on the continent should be equally troubled by a strategy that is failing to curb a far deeper, inner rage. 

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Published in Commentary

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