Australia's flagging interest in learning Asian languages is a regular feature in the media these days, and so it should be. As our multi-faceted relationship with the region expands, you'd think our curiosity would be driving us in the opposite direction. Regrettably not. This illogical gap was highlighted in theAustralian Financial Review on March 1, by columnist and longstanding Asia hand, Greg Earl, with a graph that showed Indonesia's GDP growth steadily rising while the number of Australian students studying that country's language plummets. It's a classical X-shaped dilemma.
No one seems to know where this lethargy comes from. Some suppose it might be because of the increasingly multicultural nature of Australian society and the resulting assumption that we now have a more than adequate stock of language speakers from every corner of the globe. There's some truth in that, but it's limited. The fluency of those involved is not always geared to handling business and government negotiations or other sorts of delicate interplays. The more common belief is that, with English now progressively an international lingua franca we'll all soon be able to communicate effectively anyway. Earl puts it this way: "There is an emerging backlash against the value of studying Asian languages, or for that matter any second language. For example, former Harvard president and Obama Administration official Lawrence Summers argues that translation technology and the pervasiveness of English have made language study less important."
What's actually happening inside the world of English as an international language is fascinating. It's nowhere near as straightforward as most native English-speakers imagine. Michael Skapinker, a London Financial Times business and society columnist, highlighted this in an article at the beginning of this month, mining that deep vein of cultural perception that the British are often good at. He presents two scenarios. One is an analysis of international English carried out by a Frenchman and long-time IBM executive, Paul Nerrière, who has spent years observing English conversations. When a Japanese employee met a Belgian, a Chilean and an Italian, they managed. None spoke English brilliantly but each knew the others were making mistakes too. When an American or British manager walked in, everything changed. The native speakers talked too fast and used mysterious expressions, such as "from the horse's mouth (which horse?). The others clammed up.
Nerrière saw no need for this sense of inferiority. His own English may, to a native speaker, have sounded heavily accented. But he noticed that international clients understood him better than they did his Texan boss. This led him to develop Globish, a language of 1,500 English words that he judged perfectly sufficient for international business. Globish speakers avoid all figurative language and never tell jokes. Globish, as presented by Nerrière in his language courses and books, is more than a lingua franca. It is a liberation movement, freeing its speakers from any need to engage with Anglophone literature, culture or humour. His thesis has merit, Skapinker points out. Globish is spoken wherever prices are negotiated and deals signed.
But the second scenario that the Financial Times columnist presents is far richer in texture. It focuses on a very different group of non-native English-speakers. Their vocabulary is bigger than 1,500 words. They engage with native English-speakers with confidence. And they are taking over the world. Skapinker describes recent international business discussions he has moderated or chaired in which people from, among other places, Spain, Greece, Italy, South Korea, Finland and the Netherlands have been involved. The dialogues were fast, free-flowing – and entirely in English. There were frequent questions from the audience.
Speaking at a conference, he observes, is hard enough in your own language. There is the nervousness of being on stage, the discomfort of the clipped-on microphone and, above all, the lights – sweaty-hot and so bright you can barely make out your script. But this is the extraordinary feature of this international under-the-lights brigade. They can manage without scripts. When the subject changes, they improvise. You can appreciate how impressive this is only if you have attempted to master a foreign language yourself. These elite performers actually do better than many native English-speakers. Multinational audiences find it easier to understand them because, in accordance with Nerrière's strictures, they avoid figurative language.
How, Skapinker asks, do they manage to raise their English to this level? Do you need to start young? Intuitively, you would think so, but Lessons from Good Language Learners, a 2008 collection of research studies, finds that, while early starters do have an edge, the advantage is not universal or overwhelming. There are people who sit in school language classes for years and can barely order a beer.
John Rubin, a pioneering researcher, has argued that effective language learners are prepared to guess – from context and from verbal and non-verbal clues. They are good at talking their way round a problem if they don't have the exact words. They can live with uncertainty; good language learners don't mind making mistakes. It is, as Skapinker notes, far easier to learn English if you live, study or work in an English-speaking country. Having to pay bills, listen to lectures and tell colleagues how you like your coffee are fast ways to fluency.
Above all, language learning requires motivation. And as it is no longer possible to get to the top of most international organisations without a thorough command of English, that should be motivation for many. Globish is all very well; the best of those new English learners should be aiming higher.
Michael Skapinker's reflections are pertinent to Australia: we could well be "out-Englished" in the international arena by people who have a more dextrous and pragmatic command of our native language than we do. But in behind this churning world of the global lingua franca lurks a danger that most Australians – except those who have done the hard yards on the Asian language front – are blissfully unaware of. That is, when people from other cultures learn our language – "coming our way", as culturally complacent Australians put it – they're hardly renouncing their own native tongues and all that those languages encompass. They're simply learning how to communicate with us in a highly effective manner, and one that too often blinds Australians to the vastly different thought-patterns and heritages of strategic thinking that all languages are steeped in.
This is the nub for Australia in Asia: we're too often blindsided by others in our own language. David Hill, a Murdoch University Asia specialist and author of a new report entitled Indonesian Language in Australian Universities: Strategies for a Stronger Future, has articulated the challenge forthrightly. As a member of the older generation of fast-diminishing academic experts on Indonesia in Australia, as Greg Earl refers to him, he knows what he's talking about. Hill argues that companies have mostly so far just been picking the "low-hanging fruit" in Jakarta, where English is more common.
Earl points to the fact that there will be integration with Asia up close and personal, with the benefits of economic complementarity and geographic proximity. In Indonesia's case, this will be quite different to the bulk minerals trade with China. Hill puts it this way: "An expansion and deepening of the trade and investment relationship is going to require a greater level of engagement with Indonesia's cultural and linguistic particularities."
What Australia must have, if it wants to survive on its own terms in this region, is a skilled cohort of its own people who understand how Asian peoples think and the strategies they employ – in any situation, not just on the economic and commercial fronts. At the moment, we're heading in precisely the opposite direction, and what's most worrying, enjoying the ride.
Decades ago, the former Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, offended Australians when he warned that we risked ending up as the poor white trash of Asia. Maybe, it's time to think about that again. After all, survival is ultimately all about matching wits and wills.