We should match Asia's hunger for language

First published in the Australian Financial Review 25 March 2013

Belinda Howell Belinda Howell
General Manager Sales and Marketing

It’s a fact. Our neural networks are strengthened by learning a new language. So, compared with the ambitions of the policy makers and educators I met in South East Asia last week, the aims of the Asian Century white paper on language are arguably too modest. It’s true, some general goals have now been set and the right noises have been made. Australians, particularly young people starting out in their careers, should be building Asian 'literacy', not least by actually learning the languages of our near neighbours and trading partners. Worthy government commitments have, however, been met by scepticism from many who refer to previous short- lived and largely unsuccessful attempts to get us to learn Japanese or Indonesian in large numbers.

As a member of a recent UECA (University English Centres Australia) mission to Thailand and Vietnam, I was struck by how much we could be learning from these very countries about how to develop language competency. They are grappling with how to build, at a rapid pace, English skills across their large populations, galvanised by the imminent arrival of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 with English as its lingua franca.

The governments of Thailand and Vietnam are very concerned that, in the new world in which labour mobility across borders will be expanded and companies more easily able to bid for work across the Community, they will lose out to members with superior English skills within their workforces: Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

UECA members, representing the language schools of ten universities including the University of Technology, Sydney, Monash and Macquarie, were in Bangkok and Hanoi to learn more from government officials and universities about their specific requirements, as the basis for building skills transfer and adding more elements to our fourth largest export earner, education.

What impressed me particularly was the sheer candours about the state of their English-readiness. In Thailand, a director from the Office of the Higher Education Commission revealed that the majority of teachers lacked effective English communication skills and pedagogical knowledge. She highlighted the lack of an atmosphere in schools ‘conducive to communication in English’ The president of Thailand TESOL, the lead association of English teachers, spoke of the ‘failure’ of English language teaching, identifying a lengthy list of professional development requirements to improve teachers’ skills.

It was the same in Vietnam. There, the head of the National Foreign Languages 2020 Project claimed that, after 900 plus hours of English language at school and university, students were still not able to communicate. He referred to overcrowded classrooms and teachers with lower levels of proficiency than their students.

Their openness was a surprise even to delegates from the local universities, who responded with wry laughter and an emphatic 'no' when I asked - somewhat disingenuously, I must admit- whether such frankness was typical of their culture.

The need of these countries - and the opportunity for Australian educators - was very clear. There is a huge requirement to produce more English teachers and to improve the language levels of existing teachers. Professional development for teachers is needed in a myriad of areas - teaching methodologies, classroom management, curriculum development. They want more and varied resources, innovative techniques and new technology firmly embedded. Universities recognise the need to improve the English of all their academic staff, not solely the English faculty.

Yet, despite the scale of the challenge, I came away confident that Thailand and Vietnam would achieve their goals. Maybe not to the timetable they hope for, but not long after. There is recognition of what is needed and a real enthusiasm - almost fervour- amongst those charged with making it happen. The response from local universities exceeded the expectations of AUSTRADE, which organises such missions on a regular basis. There are comprehensive plans for teacher development and teacher proficiency benchmarks, English programs from grade 3 and ‘teaching English as a means of communication, not as a school subject’. There was talk of the need for English language televisions programs and everyday media that encouraged English communication.

Yet the thought that lingered at the end of the mission was this: yes, we in Australia can assist our neighbours to acquire English. But have we considered what we can learn from them in building our own second and third language skills to fit us for the Asian Century? What, indeed, we can learn about strengthening our regional networks whilst improving our neural ones?


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