Without a second language our kids are second-class citizens

As the mining boom winds down, Member for Kingsford Smith Matt Thistlethwaite calls for governments to do more to prepare Australians for the Asian Century.

In an open global economy, when it comes to the 100 metre sprint for tertiary education and good jobs, our kids start 10 metres behind most from Asia.


The Chinese school curriculum now includes compulsory English language from year 3 to 12, which means Chinese students graduate from high school with a big advantage over Australian students – they can speak, read and write two of the most important languages in the world. 

We have built disadvantage into Australia’s education system and nobody seems to care. 

My eldest daughter started school last year. In her introductory interview I inquired of the principal whether the school offered any Asian languages.

The principal’s answer was a straightforward, “No. We are not funded to deliver languages”.

After the interview I made inquiries of other schools in the area. To my shock of the close to 50 schools in my electorate, only a handful offer Asian language programs, even fewer are funded by the state or commonwealth with one delivered by the Confucius Institute, which is effectively funded by the Chinese government.

I wrote to the NSW Education Minister and the federal Education Minister to inquire about funding for schools to deliver Asian language programs.

The New South Wales Education Minister wrote back stating, “Unfortunately, there is no additional funding available to schools to assist them in offering Asian language programs”.

The federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne indicated that the schools educational programs are a matter for the states.

While the performance of our schools overall is strong, the relative lack of Asian language programs means we are delivering second rate opportunities to our kids, who will increasingly compete with multi-lingual graduates in the global jobs market.

The lack of support for Asian language teaching in our schools is dumbfounding.

Picture this: Two recent graduates from the same university, in the same course, apply for a graduate position at a large Australian law or accounting firm that has offices and Australian clients in Asia. 

One graduate is a product of the Australian school system and speaks only English. The second graduate is an Asian foreign student that went to school in China and did their university degree in Australia. This person speaks fluent English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

The job they apply for advertises opportunities for an Asian city placement and an Asian language is desirable. 

Who do you expect will get the job?

I often have parents contact me despairing that their child has recently graduated from university and cannot get a job.

Increasingly a degree does not cut it in the global jobs market. Employers are looking for the additional skills a graduate has that will help their business. With more and more Australian businesses expanding into Asia an understanding of language and culture will give a job seeker an edge over monolingual rivals.

As a country if we don’t make sure our children get the opportunity to build these skills we are letting them down.

In Sydney, most of the schools that teach Asian languages are private schools and the courses are extracurricular subjects.

The aversion to teaching languages also flows on into tertiary education. 

Although Hindi is one of the fastest growing languages in the world it is taught by only two universities in Australia.

Our economy and our society are becoming more and more integrated with Asia. China is our largest trading partner and one of the fastest growing sources of investment.

Australian businesses have a lot to offer in Asia. A CEO of a large Australian manufacturing company recently told me that when their company was purchased by a Chinese investor, the Chinese buyers quickly discovered that Australian health, safety and environmental (HSE) practices were world’s best.

The company’s Australian representatives were soon in China developing and implementing new HSE systems across all their businesses. This expertise is now sold to other businesses in China. This occurred because China discovered us. 

Imagine the potential business opportunities that could flow from Australians actively seeking out these opportunities in Asia. 

If we are going to successfully integrate with the fastest growing region in the world we need to be able to communicate with Asian people and understand their way of life and doing business.

If we can teach a language we are not just teaching words and pronunciation. We teach a culture and a heritage. In a competitive market place understanding culture – and language – can often be the difference.

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