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Are we still turning Japanese? I don’t think so.

Ask any Queensland public school kid what second language has been foisted on them, and it is more likely than not the answer is Japanese. A lot has changed since Japanese was first introduced into Queensland schools decades ago and it is time that the second languages on offer more closely reflect Queensland’s current and future trade, and international tourist and education services relationships. Chinese Mandarin needs to be the second language offered in most Queensland public schools.

In a crowded curriculum, with core English language and maths skills declining, every minute of a student’s day is valuable. An hour spent studying a second language for example means one hour less that’s available to study core subjects like English, Maths and Science. The decision to study a second language therefore has costs as well as potential benefits for students and the broader Queensland community.

Languages closely related to English (such as the Latin-based languages) may help students improve their understanding of English and lead to better communication skills, but so too can studying English more. Languages such as German, French and Italian are declining in global importance with each passing decade.

Asian languages can provide work opportunities and new cultural experiences for Queensland students in adult life, not to mention the chance to reflect on one’s culture and place in the world.

Surely the best approach, given a crowded curriculum, scarce teaching time and limited public resources is to offer the most currently relevant languages to Queensland students.

In 2018, the main second language offered is Japanese, taught at 54% of Queensland public schools (or 527 out of 974 schools). Next most popular are German (15%, 146 schools), Chinese Mandarin (14%, 135), French (9%, 90), Italian (7%, 64) and Indonesian (6%, 63).

Japanese is offered in almost 4 times as many public schools in Queensland compared to Chinese despite the fact that a truly seismic economic, geostrategic and cultural disruption has occurred in North Asia over the past four decades.

Today, China is Australia’s and Queensland’s largest trading partner by a significant margin. Queensland merchandise trade with China is double that of Japan. The number of Chinese visitors to Australia is three times that of Japan and Chinese tourism is increasing while Japanese tourism is likely to fall over the long-term as the population and economy of Japan continues its structural decline. The number of Chinese students coming to Australia to learn English or enrol in undergraduate and postgraduate studies is many times that of Japan.

Chinese, English and Spanish are the world’s most spoken native (or L1) languages. As a native language, Japanese ranks 13th globally, and as an L2 language (or second language) Japanese does not even rank in the top twenty because it is not widely spoken outside of Japan.

The significant lag in offering a Chinese language choice to the 86% of Queensland public schools currently missing out is, in my view, a result of professional capture and bureaucratic inertia. School Principals and P&C’s, who are given the responsibility to “make decisions about the choice of language and the year levels of provision”, are understandably reluctant to disrupt longstanding relationships with Japanese teachers, existing teaching resources and sister schools in Japan.

Further, Education Queensland guidelines seem to seek to embed the status quo by identifying a merit order of the most commonly taught languages now, warning that “the availability of teachers is critical to the success of the Languages program”, encouraging the matching of languages taught across neighbouring schools in order to share resources, and matching languages offered between primary and secondary schools to promote continuity of study.

These guidelines will not foster the disruption required to make Chinese the leading second language taught in Queensland public schools. The impetus for change, therefore, must come from the Education Minister Grace Grace and her Director General Tony Cook.

The best performing Queensland private schools have been more responsive to Australia’s changing relationship with Asia and adjusted their language programs accordingly. But most families stuck with limited school choice in the public system are offered a 1980s suite of language choices by Education Queensland.

This change needs to happen now. Even if Education Queensland provided the resources to rollout Chinese language study in 20 additional public schools per year, it would take a decade for Chinese to be available in half of Queensland public schools. By then, the Chinese economy and strategic influence will totally dominate Asia-Pacific affairs. Our relationship with China, whether ultimately a friend, foe or strategic competitor, is vital in any reasonably foreseeable future.

Mandarin, by most accounts, is not an easy language to learn. It is tonal and character-based, and less mature than English in terms of its development. But the level of difficulty of a language should not be confused with what is useful for Queensland students. That’s why Japanese was rolled out in the 1980s despite the apprehension around whether Queensland kids could handle it.

Are we still turning Japanese? I don’t think so.


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