The Age reports on a paper by CIS research scholar and Philosophy PhD student Benjamin Herscovitch contesting the need to extend the teaching of Asia literacy in the Australian education system.
As a staff member of the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, you can pretty well take it as read that I disagree with Herscovitch’s paper. It’s so misinformed that it’s barely worth a response, except that the paper provides some pseudo-intellectual cred to common or garden misperceptions.
The first of these is the claim that since English is increasing its hold as the global lingua franca, English speakers can successfully navigate the world while remaining monolingual. It is true that the number of those speaking and learning English as a second language is rising in Asia as it is rising everywhere else. But navigating those countries (whether for business, cultural, political or social purposes) while speaking and understanding only English provides only a very partial insight. You are overly reliant on feedback from those who (unlike you) have gone to the effort to become multilingual (noting that many non-English speakers in Asia are still bilingual or tri-lingual in local languages). Your attitude is that of someone who expects the world to come to you, without your making the effort to develop a two-way relationship with anyone.
The other misperception is Herscovitch’s claim that migration from Asia has provided Australia with a ready-made Asia-literate population. And he is right in believing that first and second generation migrants are an important resource in developing Asia-literacy. But it is a resource that needs to be further developed through formal education. “Speaking an Asian language at home” does not necessarily equate to being able to read and write it at even a basic level (although of course many families supplement home conversation with Saturday classes). Think back to your own English language fluency at primary school level, and then imagine not even being able to read. And imagine if all you knew about Australian politics and society was what your parents and their friends had told you and what you picked up from tv. Second generation kids need education in order to become Asia-literate, too.
I am not bragging about my own language fluency, by the way. I did not learn an Asian language at home, and despite my undergraduate major in Hindi/Urdu plus a few semesters in Arabic, my own fluency is still a work in progress. But at least I know enough to know how much I still don’t know – and enough to know that Benjamin Herscovitch knows sweet eff-all.