At the 2020 Youth Summit in April last year, Australian youth expressed their dismay at the fact that Australia suffers from a severe lack of foreign language skills - so bad, in fact, that Australia ranks dead last among all OECD countries in terms of hours spent studying foreign languages.
I am writing to you from sunny, beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico where I am finishing up my one-year university exchange learning Spanish. Here, it is a prerequisite that all Mexican students that study at my university speak fluent English; however, a large majority are also studying a third language like French, German or Chinese.
Being here for one year has made me realise just how far behind we are in Australia in terms of being able to communicate with the rest of the world. It baffles me as to why Australians rank so badly when nearly a quarter of Australia’s population today was born overseas. I do not know any person in Australia who can speak a second language fluently apart from the first- and second-generation immigrants that I know.
The percentage of Year 12 students in Australia studying a foreign language has dropped from 40 per cent in our parents’ generation in the 1950s and 60s to just 13 per cent today, with the figure as low as 6 per cent in some states. Compare this to Finland, where all students study at least three foreign languages; 44 per cent progress to do a fourth language and 31 per cent learn a fifth.
Australia suffers from the “island country syndrome”: we think we don’t need any other language and that everyone in the world speaks English. In fact, 75-80 per cent of the world does not speak English at all (depending on where you get your figures from). And, as the recent surge in refugee boat arrivals to Australia and our vulnerability to the global financial crisis show, we are now, more than ever, deeply integrated into the 21st century world.
A 2007 Group of 8 Australian universities’ report showed that the number of foreign languages offered at Australian universities has dropped from 66 in the 1990s to just 29 today. While it is valuable to learn any language, I believe that if Australia wants to position itself well for the future, we need to move away from the traditional European languages - like French, Italian and German - and start learning the Asian and Middle Eastern languages that are really going to make a big impact in the future: Chinese, Indonesian, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and Farsi, as well as Spanish and Portuguese.
However, currently only five universities in Australia offer Arabic and fewer than 3 per cent of university students study an Asian language. While it is easy to call on universities and governments to promote the learning of these languages, more than that, Australians need to want to learn them. With nearly one million Australians living overseas and with the reputation we have for being intrepid travellers, why can’t we back that up with being able to speak the language of the countries we travel to?
And, if you need more convincing, “Hollywood” language teacher Michael Thomas recently published a report which said that people who learn a foreign language are “richer, happier and are regarded as sexier than those who can only speak English”. So, I say, let’s go Australia, let’s make some money, smile and be sexy - what do we have to lose?
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