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The current state of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean language education in Australian schools: four languages, four stories


This article is adapted from the introduction to a new Australian Government report of the same title that is available in full on the website of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF). The report provides an overview of issues addressed in four separately published reports covering Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese language education, also available on the AEF website.

In 2009 the Australian Government commissioned the Asia Education Foundation to research and produce detailed reports outlining the current situation in Australian schools with relation to three of the languages targeted by the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program – Indonesian, Japanese and Korean. Teams of academic experts in each language area have now completed these three reports: for Indonesian, Michelle Kohler (University of South Australia) and Dr Phillip Mahnken (University of the Sunshine Coast); for Japanese, Anne de Kretser and Dr Robyn Spence-Brown (both of Monash University); for Korean, Dr Seong-Chul Shin (University of New South Wales). Chinese had already been the subject of such a study in 2008 by Dr Jane Orton for the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and Melbourne Confucius Institute. All four reports provide detailed insight into the situation of their topic language and are an invaluable resource to inform the future of Asian languages in Australian schools.

The Australian Government has published an overview of the reports, titled The Current State of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean Language Education in Australian Schools: Four Languages, Four Stories. The overview has two purposes. The first is to provide access to key elements of the findings of the four reports, an overview of the issues they raise and suggested responses to those issues to guide and direct thinking about appropriate action by education systems and schools.

The second is to draw attention to the fact that, while at a broad strategic level the four languages have similar (but not the same) issues and requirements, their situations are very different. History, scale of operation, support base, nature of the student group, rationale, teacher profile – these are fundamentals in which there are many marked differences across the four languages. If students are to be engaged with Asian languages in Australian schools, these differences must be acknowledged and must inform planning.

There are some general issues which are noted in the report. But the bulk of the report is devoted to the individuality of the actual circumstances of each of the four languages. This is a different way of thinking about language provision.

These reports could not be more timely.

The National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program

The National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) provides the relevant impetus and context for Asian languages in Australian schools today.

In 2008 the Australian Government announced that the NALSSP would operate over 2008–09 to 2011–12, and committed funding of $62.4m to enable it to achieve its objectives:

to significantly increase the number of Australian students becoming proficient at learning the languages and understanding the cultures of our Asian neighbours China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea. It also aims to increase the number of qualified Asian language teachers and develop a specialist curriculum for advanced languages students (Program Guidelines, DEEWR, page 1).

Three key result areas have been identified for the NALSSP.

  • Flexible delivery and pathways: ensuring primary and secondary schools are equipped with enabling infrastructure and resources that support the quality teaching and learning of Asian languages and studies of Asia, and strengthening strategic partnerships and networks between schools, universities, higher education providers, businesses and Asian communities to support and add real-world experiences to the teaching and learning of Asian languages.
  • Increasing teacher supply and support: ensuring there is an increased and maintained supply of quality teachers of Asian languages and studies of Asia.
  • Stimulating student demand: ensuring that students are aware of the benefits of studying Asian languages and of studies of Asia.

The aspirational target for the NALSSP is that, 'by 2020, at least 12 per cent of students will exit Year 12 with a fluency in one of the target Asian languages sufficient for engaging in trade and commerce in Asia and/or university study'. Australian Bureau of Statistics data (2008) shows that around 197,500 students are forecast to be in Year 12 in 2020. Meeting the NALSSP’s target will therefore require at least 24,000 students to be studying one of the four languages in 2020, up from the 11,654 students reported to have completed study of the languages in Year 12 in 2008. This equates to a 100 per cent increase in student numbers but does not address the issue of how many of these students achieve fluency.

The NALSSP target does not identify what that might mean for the number of students for each language by 2020 but provides an overall percentage. Based on participation trends since 2002, proportional size and profile of each language, and 2008 data showing that Chinese had 5,000 students studying at Year 12 level, Japanese around 4,000, Indonesian 1,300 and Korean 177, the numbers of students would include:

  • 8,000 studying Chinese
  • 8,000 studying Japanese
  • 5,000 studying Indonesian and
  • 3,000 studying Korean.

Clearly, there are challenges ahead for each language if these participation numbers are to be met, particularly for Indonesian and Korean.

In addition, the first language (L1), heritage language (LH) and second language (L2) breakdown of the Year 12 student cohort in each language by 2020 is also not defined in the NALSSP target. Currently, students studying Indonesian at Year 12 are predominantly reported to be second language learners (L2). Those studying Japanese are mostly L2 learners (there is evidence of increased numbers of native and Heritage speakers in Year 12 Japanese courses). However, those studying Korean language are invariably L1 students, and an extremely high percentage of students studying Chinese are L1 (local born, immigrant and international students) learners. Within the L2 cohort of Chinese, many are in fact home-speakers/Heritage speakers of Chinese.

The task ahead

The four reports have been developed at a time of significant impetus to better support Australian students to learn each language. In 2008, all Education Ministers endorsed the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians with its acknowledgement of the need for Australians to become Asia literate and, in increasing numbers, be able to communicate with Australia’s Asian neighbours in their languages. The NALSSP gives flexibility to states and territories to target funding. It provides crucial leadership and resources to move teaching and learning of each language forward, and the willingness and opportunity for national collaboration and action to support each language is, arguably, unprecedented.

However, the extent of the work ahead to capitalise on this impetus cannot be underestimated. The NALSSP’s aspirational target is that, by 2020, at least 12 per cent of students will exit Year 12 with a fluency in one of the target Asian languages sufficient for engaging in trade and commerce in Asia or university study. The four reports clearly illustrate that without new and sustained evidence-based efforts specifically tailored for each language, the target will be difficult to achieve.

Strategic work must focus, firstly, on developing a persuasive new vision for language learning that is communicated and committed to by education systems and school educators in general. This is especially critical for Indonesian language learning.

It is also important to establish national groups to develop and oversee the implementation of strategy plans for each language, and to provide effective advocacy for their language. These reports clearly indicate that this is essential. These groups have potential to play a key role in supporting work towards the NALSSP aspirational target.

A one-size-fits-all approach to supporting the NALSSP languages is not tenable. Meeting the 'aspirational target' for NALSSP must be based on initiatives that are evidence based and carefully tailored to the circumstances of each of the languages. The new effort must be systematic over time and support the coordination of language-specific strategies and initiatives occurring nationally.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Curriculum planning
Teaching and learning
Korea (South Korea)
Languages other than English (LOTE)