It is commonly accepted that to learn a foreign language and develop a good working fluency in it, is to create a window through which to pass into a different cultural landscape of life, standards, values and ways of thinking. Sometimes it’s not just a culture that’s involved, but rather a civilisation, in which case the differences are great. They require a totally different mindset. Many native-born Australians might feel that French and Italian attitudes, for example, are not only different but quirky. But when you’re dealing with say, China, Japan or Indonesia, the disparity makes quirkiness look like a Sunday school picnic.
Of course, linguistic aptitude alone isn’t enough to endow you with the benefits and richness that come from that landscape. Aptitude will take you up to the window and allow you to peer in, but only human empathy lets you pass through and immerse yourself in a new world of diversity.
Many Australians, over many generations have experienced the sense of fulfilment and contribution that are part of this process. Some have done so in more than one place in Asia. Naturally, though, they have not had to renounce their own way of thinking in order to blend in, learn and be accepted. Resilience and tolerance certainly help oil the path, and though one eventually comes to think in the new language and to adopt the mannerisms that go with it, you’re still intrinsically yourself. Some Australians do “go troppo”, but not many.
The huge advantage you gain from this experience is the capacity to move backwards and forwards through this window, as circumstance requires, and see an issue from both perspectives. Australian Asia hands who can do this are generally of great use to their country and often help to keep both sides together when they’re prone to fall apart. Old hands who have been at it for a while can smell a fake “Asia expert” at a hundred paces. The latter frequently have the rhetoric right, and use their linguistic prowess to bolster the impression that they know what they’re talking about, but at the end of the day reality mugs them and we can all see how vacuous their oratory is.
Because most Australians are averse to learning Asian languages, often believing that today’s multi-cultural society automatically equips us with the skills we need, they’re usually unable to detect a fake early on. They’re also unlikely to recognise when people from Asia have turned the cultural and linguistic tables on us, customarily with exquisite tact and politeness.
A classical illustration of this came recently when the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, visited Australia. Their speeches and interviews in English were finely calibrated and widely appreciated. On one notable issue they used all the subtlety that Asia’s renowned for, combined with a good knowledge of our native language and how we think, in order to make a categorical point. Most Australians seemed to miss the potency of the message, though some in the media sensed something was afoot. The Australian’s banner headline on March 10 was, “SBY cool on Rudd’s Asia plan”, reporting that the president had told our prime minister that Indonesia was unlikely to support any push on our part for a new Asia-Pacific community. The president’s comments, one of the newspaper’s journalists noted, were “studiously vague”. But Natalegawa, obviously with prior assent from his boss, drove the dagger home with the consummate skill of a 16th century European swordsman.
Relish this serve from the personable minister, who did his PhD in international relations at the Australian National University. The Sydney Morning Herald astutely picked it up and reported it on its front page on March 11. Jakarta, Natalegawa said, “was trying to avoid another layer, an out-of-nowhere construction not in concert, not in synergy with what we [already] have. We want to listen more and see if we can build on what we have.” The Australian quoted Natalegawa as saying that, “We don’t want the discussion to be just about membership. Nor do we want to be gatekeepers of the region.” Sydney’s Daily Telegraph had him asking, “what benefit would there be forming a new forum, having more meetings [and] more acronyms?”
In plain English, this means, “Butt out! The last thing Asia needs is some smart-arse, Johnny-come-lately trying to impose on it a hare-brained idea plucked out of the air with no prior consultation - in Canberra, let alone around Asia. Besides, who’s Australia to be corralling Asia’s horses, as though they’re all standing around dimwittedly, waiting for a bit of good Aussie leadership?”
Bear in mind, this deft stroke of statesmanship has cost the Australian taxpayer a packet. It includes nearly half a million dollars for the octogenarian Richard Woolcott to fly around the region exercising his charms, $800,000 to fly more than 100 Asian government officials and academics to Sydney for a three-day talkfest, as well as numerous other expenses. The pity is that this money wasn’t spent on boosting Asian language learning in Australia.
Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne, was quoted in The Australian on March 15 as saying, “We have the lowest levels of teaching of Indonesian language in a decade.” Overall, Indonesian studies are in crisis. One after the other, universities are scaling down or closing their Indonesian programs. Indonesia, of course, is only one part of Asia.
Here’s a comment from The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mandarin-speaking Beijing correspondent, John Garnaut, on March 8: “Some Australian companies that depend on China are improving their analytical capability, although most are yet to acknowledge that they have a problem. There is not a single Australia-based scholar with up-to-the-minute knowledge on either Chinese elite politics or macro-economics. Last year, Stephen Joske, previously the Australian Government’s top China economist, said ‘there’s no one in Treasury who can tell up from down on China, beyond what they read in the newspapers’.”
It all goes back to that window and to how many Australians we can consistently produce who are able to pass through it - rather than claim they can. Put simply, at this rate we’re crippling our future. Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese strategist (and there were many more), reportedly observed that when you wish to conquer an enemy you subvert his strengths with such alacrity and patience that when he finally hits the dust he still has a smile on his face.
History will tell who has the last laugh.