Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Luke Slattery, learning a second language and sticking it to that deluded cabal of Asian language lovers

(Above: Tandem novum quidem et inauditum consilium capit).

As one of the few proud survivors of the teaching of Latin in schools, I know how wonderful it is to have a second language.

When not speaking fluently to the ghostly spectre of Julius Caesar as he hovers over my desk (second thoughts that might be schizophrenia), I can always go back to the original Latin, and stumble around with my 200 word vocabulary gaining keen insights into Cicero. Or Ovid. Or a medical dictionary. Or best of all I can still make sense of Molesworth at St. Custards as he deploys his production line for Latin sentences.

I also learned enough French to know I could never satisfy the French without being greeted by a sly, sardonic sneer as I tried to rustle up du pain et du fromage.

But even with this amazing fluency and worldly mein, I'm still at a loss to make head or tail of Luke Slattery's plea that all students finish year 12 with a proficiency in a second language (Don't start with Asian tongues). Provided it's not an Asian language.

They're fiendishly tricky and difficult.

You see, Slattery only wants students to target European languages, because of their relevance. But I can tell you now that wandering around a rural show having a teacher point out strange vaches in a foreign tongue is one of the more poignant introductions to surrealism you can imagine.

Slattery is most concerned that students might be encouraged to study Asian languages. Why? Did I mention that they're too hard, and they involve too much work, and they're too complex and involve hours of study. They should only be taught as a third language because once people learn that they won't be able to satisfy the distant French, they'll only too happy to be laughed at by the more proximate Chinese.

The emphasis should be on those European languages with which English has an affinity: German, French, Spanish and Italian. These tongues have a dual action: they are relatively easy to learn and enrich one's knowledge of English.

In most instances the study of character-based Asian languages, such as Japanese and Chinese, should be reserved for Anglophones who have cut their teeth on a European language. This acknowledges a reality of language learning: it takes three times as many tuition hours for English speakers to learn character-based languages. All power to Kevin Rudd for his mastery of Mandarin, but he has been the beneficiary of untold hours of taxpayer-funded tuition.

Yes, such a comprehensive waste of time and money to engage with our near neighbours, with the possible exception of Bahasa Indonesian because it's an exception and relatively easy to learn. And as for teaching children when they're young and can learn languages more intuitively. Sure, but only European remember ...

Because easy is by far the most important thing. Anyway, the Asians are already big in to English, so why bother learning their lingo? It's so hard, and so not relevant.

Asian language advocates rely almost exclusively on economic appeal to sell their message. What they forget is that English is the language of global commerce and the lingua franca of the regional marketplace. When China realises its ambitions of becoming an English-speaking power, it will join India, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan, to name but a few.

Asia is, in fact, becoming an Anglophone economic powerhouse. Australia will need some elite speakers of Mandarin, Korean and Japanese to work at the top levels of business, academe and government: most likely they will be native speakers who have emigrated to this country. A mass Asian language program would appeal to the Australia-is-an-Asian-nation cabal and be a world first: no other Western nation has attempted such a thing. But it would be lunacy.

Lunacy, I tells ya. When learning a European language on the basis of a mass European language learning program makes perfect sense. Sure there's no economic appeal, since we all know the neo cons analyzed Europe as dead several decades ago, and we're just waiting for the rigor mortis to kick out before we bury the body. And sure we could possibly get by with some elite speakers of German, French, Spanish and Italian, since they already have comprehensive second language programs going aimed at speaking English. 

And sure every argument you could advance against Asian languages you could advance against European languages if you wanted to exercise rampant prejudice without due care or thought. But how do you get around the fact that Italian is so easy and so mellifluous up against that hideously hard tonal Chinese with its bird track scribbles?

What we do need is a policy that ensures all Australians finish school with a second language in order to take their place in a multilingual world. There are powerful cognitive, cultural and intellectual reasons for second language acquisition. We inhabit a moment in time when multilingualism is the global norm.

Australia, you're standing in it.

Except it's not really a multilingual world. It's a European world. And multilingualism needs to be confined to Europe at a time when Europe is the global norm, at least if you exclude Asia as any right thinking Australian hungering for lost fatherlands would do. 

What a profoundly multidimensional world it will be for Aussie students going forth to Europe (and maybe Indonesia because it too is easy to learn).

Why then do I still think that it's not Australia that's standing in it? It's Luke Slattery that's standing in it - though not in Australia, which as any cabal of deluded lobbyists would wrongly try to tell you is somewhere situated near Asia.

Why with the new supersonic jets, Asian languages are something we'll be able to fly over on our way to Paris for a diplomatic posting. En francais, si'il vous plait.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love your work, Dorothy; and referencing Molesworth is the icing on the cake.