Andrew says 'Australia has spent at least thirty years arguing about our role in Asia.' He is showing his youth. When I was short-listed for The Department of External Affairs, as it was then called, in 1964, as part of the 2-day final selection process, I had to write a short essay on the subject 'Is Australia part of Asia?' That makes it at least 47 years! Given our role in the creation of the Colombo Plan and SEATO, I think it could be argued it goes back a lot longer.
A big thank-you to Andrew Carr and hurrah for Asian languages. Andrew is correct to identify apathetic demand as the major stumbling block. Logistically, it presents no real challenge a country as wealthy and capable as Australia. Overcoming the cultural stumbling blocks however — the island mentality, our awareness of the dominance of English — presents a real difficulty. Creating a culture of language-learning approaching anywhere near our culture of sport will be difficult and will take a generation. It will also take a bit of clever psychology.
But this may also present the key to the puzzle. Having been an educator I have seen for myself the importance of parental attitudes and parental involvement — or at least of an adult close to the student — to educational outcomes. Now, Australians, for example, will do anything for a tax break. How about a modest tax break for anyone whose child meets this year's standard improvement? Or a chance to win a fabulous prize? Or a Dan Murphy's gift voucher? (I'd be pushing my kids hard for that one.) And what about a Christmas voucher for the kids themselves? And finally, let's have a bonus for the successful teacher. And that's just for financial incentives, I have a couple of further suggestions.
First, make Indonesian the first Asian language. It is easy, it uses the Roman alphabet, it is not tonal, and its similarities to European languages sometimes surprise me, while yet introducing certain common Asian features such as counting words ('There are three persons of doctor and five tails of cow in the yard'). Also, travelling to Indonesia is cheap and easy and Australians will go there without being pushed ('I've been to Bali too').
Second, set the bar for each step not too high. Make it achievable for average students. Third, have the actual testing done by a centralised, independent, national body. Frankly, I'd consider getting ETS in Princeton to do it — they have the expertise. This means there is no potential conflict of interest for our bonus-hungry teachers.
Fourth, provide online edutainment which stores results, perhaps allows the students to compete with or otherwise compare themselves to their friends, and allows the teacher to monitor their students' progress. Fifth, give out 'Best and Fairest' and 'Most Improved' prizes in the form of family holidays or school excursions to Indonesia. Rinse and repeat: perhaps Chinese or a language of one's own choice should be next?
I am well aware that all of this is going to be very expensive. But we can afford to do it — we can afford a lot of things if we cancel the expensive Collins II disaster-in-waiting and instead buy much cheaper yet high-quality submarines off-the-shelf from Europe. If we as a nation are serious about our future, then we will need to pay the price to create that future. I for one would like to see us become the sophisticated, international, overachieving Huguenots rather than the 'white trash' of Asia. Can we really afford not to do it?