Sep 10, 2012

A straw man argument in any language: a response to Shakira Hussein

by Benjamin Herscovitch Writing on The Stump on Thursday

by Benjamin Herscovitch

Writing on The Stump on Thursday, Shakira Hussein dismantled arguments I never made. In a classic case of attacking a straw man, Hussein shadowboxed with the claims that teaching other languages to native English speakers is redundant and that Australians who speak Asian languages at home never need to hone their skills through formal education.

In my recently released paper, Australia’s Asia Literacy Non-Problem, I use the demographics of language education policy to fill the evidence vacuum of the Asia literacy debate. I show that multicultural Australia’s readymade Asia literacy and Asia’s widespread English literacy have made it possible for Australia to prosper in the Asian Century.

Nowhere do I advocate monolingualism for native English speakers. In fact, a large part of my paper is devoted to detailing multicultural Australia’s valuable multilingual skills (pp. 9–11). What is more, I acknowledge the point made by Hussein that speaking an Asian language at home does not necessarily imply fluency (p. 11).

My key claim, which Hussein apparently misses, is that Australia’s readymade Asia literacy and Asia’s English literacy unmask ‘Asia literacy alarm’ as unempirical and out of step with Australia’s multicultural reality (p. 1). Although there may well be advantages associated with speaking Asian languages as the region becomes the centre of global power, the idea that dire economic and security consequences are in store for Australia if we do not teach Asian languages to all students does not square with the evidence.

Has Australia really been lulled into a dangerous English-centric complacency when 800 million or so people speak English in Asia and it is an official language in demographic giants such as India and dynamic commercial hubs such as Singapore? Should we actually be deeply concerned by the low numbers of students learning Asian languages when approximately 2.2 million Australians (10% of the population) speak Asian languages at home?

I do not oppose teaching Asian languages, or any other languages for that matter. I simply argue that Asia’s ascension and the relative decline of the North Atlantic powers should not produce a knee-jerk policy response. Before we spend potentially billions of dollars making Asian languages compulsory for all students – as some academics, commentators and politicians have recommended – we need to carefully consider the demographics of language education policy.

*Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of the recent publication, Australia’s Asia Literacy Non-Problem

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2 thoughts on “A straw man argument in any language: a response to Shakira Hussein

  1. Shakira Hussein

    By the way. I notice that Herscovitch’s post has gained the CIS some twitter-love from a presumably new direction. Some people (or bots) lack the cultural literacy to tell the difference between a Latin American pop goddess and an Australian academic.

  2. Shakira Hussein

    Having said in my original piece post that Herscovitch’s paper barely merited a response, his response to my response is even less worthwhile. He accuses me of misreading his paper – and then repeats the points that I criticised. Australia does not have “ready-made Asia literacy” at this point in time, despite the fact that (as I said) migrant communities are a valuable resource in that regard. Asian societies of course have a strong and growing degree of English language fluency, and generally know far more about “us” than “we” know about “them”. However, they do not have the extraordinarily high degree of English-language fluency that he (and many others) seem to assume.
    A colleague in Chinese studies and I are planning to write a paper about the types of assumptions held by Herscovitch and many others, in which we will explore this issue at greater length and (since my colleague is erudite as well as multilingual) in somewhat more academic language than my use of the term “sweet eff-all” might seem to auger.

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