There is strong support in Australian schools and the wider community to embrace Asian languages but challenges remain in overcoming perceptions that they are more difficult to learn than European ones.
That is the view of educators at a forum at the Australian National University (ANU) on Friday aimed to promote education about Asia in Australian schools and how to adopt ways to encourage the study of Asian languages.
The forum,"Leading Asia Education in 21st Century Schools," hosted by the ANU's China in the World Centre, was convened to help schools implement the national curriculum's focus on Australia's four Asian priority languages of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean.
Mark Strange, a research fellow at the School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU's College of Asia and the Pacific, said Australia had come a long way in integrating itself into Asia thanks to its geography and political aspirations, adding that there had also been a substantial increase over the past couple of years in the number of Australians learning Asian languages but that there "is still a long way to go".
"Australia has pitched itself as part of Asia but there is further space to develop our Asian education and more students could be, and should be, encouraged to take up Asian languages and Asian cultural studies," Strange said.
He said there is a perception in Australia that Asian languages are more difficult to master, but this is "a false perception and one that we should be working to overcome". "Asian languages are no more or no less difficult than, for example, European languages with which we are more familiar in Australia," he said. "It is a matter of making it clear to our students that there are challenges but they are not insurmountable challenges. There are just different types of difficulties."
Overcoming these false perceptions would be achieved by " immersion and familiarity when these languages are taught in more and more in schools and eventually become part of our everyday lives and environment," Strange said.
According to Strange, Asian language studies should be merged with other cultural activities so that it will not be a language in isolation but part of a larger cultural complex.
The key to getting more Australians to learn an Asian language is to make them enjoy and have fun, he said.
"We need to create a sense of fun around the learning of these languages, which will lessen the sense of their being difficult. They will become simply another form of entertainment and the more we can inject a sense of fun into the learning of Asian languages, as part of that idea that languages relate to a larger cultural complexes, the better," Strange said.
Justin Hassall, coordinator of Asian engagement at Canberra Grammar School, agreed that perceptions that Asian languages are more difficult to learn have persisted over the years.
"The perception is there (but it gets down) to a reliance on excellent staff to be able to confidently teach the language, and that's going to differ from school to school," Hassall said. " At our school we are very fortunate to have very confident staff."
Hassal said that what is needed is to fully understand the language, its history and the culture of the people speaking it.
He, however, admitted that "with the history and culture that, for example, the Chinese have, it does take a little bit longer but we want to break down that perception."
"That's where I start with the boys. I say, let's look at these characters because often they get quite overwhelmed with them. I say let's break them down and look at each particle and each phonetic within that character and let's look at how originally it was like a pictogram and we go through the history of how that character has developed and it gives the students a lot of confidence. We do a lot of playing on sounds, with the tones as well," Hassall said.
Hassall said his school had a strong tradition of Asian engagement. Canberra Grammar was one of the first Australian schools to organize study trips to China in the late 1970s, and now conducts twice a year, as well as other study tours to Nepal and Thailand, the latter to help mountain communities build infrastructure for their education.
"A key component is letting the boys get a feel for what Asia is themselves so that when they graduate and go to the university, they would want to study more about Asia," Hassall said
The school offers Asian studies across its whole curriculum with Chinese language leaning compulsory from years 5-7, with good retention rates in subsequent years. It works closely with the ANU and the University of Canberra to develop programs to engage students in a practical way. "We are like a bridging program between secondary sector and the tertiary sector," Hassall said.
He said that being in Canberra has an advantage because they have proximity to the embassies where the school has worked closely and with local business and federal government departments which have been very supportive of their academic program.