Kirrilee Hughes is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University and is researching 'Asia literacy'.

The forthcoming White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century is bound to include recommendations for Australia to increase its 'Asia literacy'. But what exactly does this mean? 'Asia literacy' is discussed as if its meaning is self-evident, but the term is not often defined. This is more than a matter of semantics: the assumptions and perceptions behind 'Asia literacy' are pivotal to good policy prescriptions.

If the Asian Century White Paper defines Asia literacy in its conventionally narrow terms, ensuing policies may again fall short of their targets. I propose a broader definition to argue for a focus on 'latent' Asia literacy.

'Asia literate' is not a new term and was first used by Dr Stephen FitzGerald in 1988:

...we must as a nation become “Asia literate”; that is, have a populace in which knowledge of an Asian language is commonplace and knowledge about Asian customs, economies and societies very widespread. Such knowledge will not help our performance just at the margins. It will be central to our ability to perform.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 'Asia literacy' was often used by policy makers and practitioners, yet its definition was not scrutinised. Most recently, the federal government's National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) uses but does not define 'Asia literacy', linking the term to specific economic outcomes of national, strategic importance in 'creating more jobs and higher wages and overall better opportunities for all Australians'.

Four points underpin what I argue 'Asia literacy' is assumed to mean:

  1. Asia literacy encompasses two dimensions: the learning of Asian languages in particular and the learning about Asian societies more generally.
  2. Asia literacy is an Australian term and policy initiative; it is to be learned by Australian students, taught by Australian educators and promoted by the Australian Government. There is little evidence of the systematic involvement of foreign, 'Asian' governments in the formulation of Asia literacy initiatives or of Asian educators in the teaching of Asia to Australian students. Existing Asia literacy possessed by Australian students is not included in current measurements of Australia's Asia literacy.
  3. Asia literacy is a desired future state for Australian students and graduates; Asia literacy is an aspiration, it does not reflect a status quo. Asia literacy is cast as a mass-based education outcome (rather than a specialisation for selected students) and must be 'learned' by students.
  4. Asia literacy is delivered and consumed through formal places of learning such as schools and universities. One can't become Asia literate, it seems, outside of these places.

These points are reflected in the conventional measures of Asia literacy, which have focused on Asian languages education. Because Asia literacy is defined as occurring in schools and other places of formal learning, it is usually measured in terms of student enrolments or student load in particular languages.

Interpreter readers will be familiar with Australia's declining participation rates in Asian languages education. This is, however, only a measure of Asian languages as they are learned through Australian education systems. By focusing on the way Asia literacy has not been measured, we reveal the potential for 'latent Asia literacy' within the Australian population. And this latency is increasing.

Here I draw on Census data, though I acknowledge there are other ways to quantify Asia literacy outside the formal education system, for example, through community language schools and outbound tourism. The following table presents data from the last four censuses and shows that the percentages of both citizens and non-citizens who 'speak English only' at home has decreased by around 2% each census year. This indicates growth in languages other than English being used in Australian homes, including Asian languages.

Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data, 2012.

This latent Asia literacy also exists within Australia's student population, who are the focus of much discussion about Asia literacy. The following graph presents data from 1991–2006 censuses for the prioritised languages as spoken at home by Australian citizens only who are also enrolled in Australian education institutions (including pre-schools, primary schools, secondary school, TAFEs and universities). All prioritised languages have experienced growth in Australian homes by Australian students.

This data, which does not include other majority Asian languages spoken in Australian homes such as Arabic, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Hindi, shows that by excluding the home environment as a place for the teaching and learning of Asia literacy, Australian speakers of prioritised Asian languages are absent from Asia literacy outcomes.

Conventional measures of Asia literacy mask latent Asia literacy within sections of Australia's population. The challenge for the Asian Century White Paper is to develop and practise a more inclusive definition of Asia literacy that recognises and rewards these groups.

Photo by Flickr user nickherber.