Monday, 14 October 2013

Mr Abbott, please get off your bike and learn an Asian language

With new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott freshly back from his visit to Indonesia, I recalled my blog post from February 2013 when I predicted that the ambitious language policies of neither major party would survive the election.  ''We are supposed to be adapting to the Asian century, yet Australians' study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, is in precipitous decline,'' Mr Abbottt said in May 2013, promising that forty percent of high school students would be studying languages within ten years.

As the election neared, we had the depressing news that the University of Canberra was axing its languages program; would a Liberal victory turn the decline around?

So imagine my thrill recently when I checked the Liberal Party website and saw in the 'our plan' drop-down menu the word 'languages', only to be crestfallen when I found that these simply led to versions of 'our plan' in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Korean, and Vietnamese. Probing further into the list of 2013 policies I searched in vain for some mention of language learning - Asian or otherwise. Nothing.

A dispiriting feature of Australia's political leadership is its dogged monolingualism. Kevin Rudd was a rare exception, but Alexander Downer's sour comments about Rudd's Mandarin skills in 2007 were perhaps symptomatic of an ingrained fear of stepping outside the cosy sphere of English. What we lack in Australia is role models and champions of bilingualism among our political leaders; multilingual Mathias Cormann provides a possible spark of hope here.

 The distinguished Vice Chancellor Peter Høy warned of the risks of a monolingual Australia in his recent article Can We Afford to be Without Multilingualism? A Scientist’s Lay Perspective. Høy's paper is especially important because he is not a languages cheer leader defending a funds-starved university course, but a scientist articulating a commonsense case based on his personal and professional experience.

If Mr Abbott's cycling activity is as extensive as the current travel expenses furore seems to indicate, then our PM might want to devote some pedal time to studying an Asian language. Does the PM want to be seen as a sportsman or a statesman? I thought hard to come up with world leaders who flaunt their athleticism and could only come up with Vladimir Putin, topless horseman and wrestler of monster fish. But as Putin demonstrated at a judo contest in Vienna in 2010, he can make a speech in English and be a sport fanatic at the same time.

So will Mr Abbott lope across the world stage as yet another rusted-on Australian adherent of English or bust, or will he adopt a more urbane and diplomatic persona? Could he become a role model for those thousands of school children who may (or may not) study languages within a decade?

Here are my language learning tips for the PM:


·        Choose Indonesian: You don't have to learn a new script and you can learn some basics quickly.

·        Start with a few hours of study a week, but be modest in your expectations; you're too busy to develop more than elementary skills.

·        Skim the Indonesian press online when you have spare minutes, and paste the headlines into Google Translate. Soon you'll be able to read some simple sentences unaided.

·        Have someone write some simple speeches for you, and learn to read them aloud.

·        When you visit a school where Indonesian is taught, make a speech in Indonesian.

·        When you are next at an official function in Indonesia, make a short speech in Indonesian; you can rehearse it beforehand and simply read it out.


Mr Abbott, it's that simple for you to give language learners in Australia the mainstream role model they need and at the same time to hone your image as a statesman. Just get off your bike!

© Stuart Campbell
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