Suffering from the pandemic and decades of government policy, many Australian universities are axing programs in community languages like Hindi, Indonesian and Greek to try to make up significant budget shortfalls. That article poses the question of what it means for Australia’s “turn to Asia” to be axing these courses, but honestly I feel like this is the end, not the beginning, of the problem.

Certainly, it’s a bad thing that there’ll be only one university left in the country offering a course in Hindi, and that aspiring learners of Indonesian and Greek will be left with fewer and fewer options. (I know that Greek isn’t really an Asian language, but the course cuts are targeting community languages with low enrolments, not “Asian languages” as a whole; CJK programs are doing fine.) But I also think it’d be wrong to assume that language learning begins and ends with university courses. I myself learnt Spanish as part of my university degree, an opportunity I don’t think I’d have had otherwise (free online courses like Duolingo just don’t compare to an actual academic program, although they’re not useless, either). But comparing me to the majority of Australians – and even to the majority of people who took those Spanish courses alongside me – I’m an exception. The vast majority of people never try learning a language at uni, and the majority of those who start don’t stick with it long enough to learn the language to a usable level. My cohort started with nine tutorial groups (a group being up to 30 people); by second semester we had seven; by third semester we had four; by fourth semester we still had four but they were all a lot smaller; and by the third year, there were only two. And I can tell you, even though I scored consistent High Distinctions, by the end of that third year I still only spoke the most faltering, vocab-deficient Spanish… but I at least had enough of a foundation that I could improve massively through travel, reading books, and watching TV shows in Spanish. So while university courses are valuable and important, let’s be real about their limitations.

There are a number of reasons why Australians suck at learning additional languages, but most of them stem from the one core issue: except for non-native English speakers, few of us have any need to learn another language, and so most people place no importance on it. People kind of understand learning the languages of our major trading partners, like Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian (even though they still figure trade can be conducted in English). They also understand learning your own heritage language, or a language spoken by your partner and in-laws (to the point that when I tell people I speak or have studied Spanish, they assume either I or my in-laws must be Hispanic). If you learn a prestigious language like French or German, that’s also understood. But learning a community language like Vietnamese, Turkish or Somali if you have no family connection to those speech communities is not understood at all. For most purposes where translators for those languages are needed (healthcare settings, courts, etc.), the expectation is that second-generation members of those communities, who’ve grown up bilingual, will be available. So… for the more right-wing in our community… they think, “Why should our taxpayer money go to helping weirdos learn these languages it makes no sense to learn?!”

And I mean, with all those examples I gave of situations where people “understand” learning another language, they still don’t consider it important. It might be nice, but at the end of the day the global dominance of English means you don’t need any other languages in nearly any situation (even travelling, if you stick to well-trodden paths or go with a tour). What this means is that even when a foreign language is taught, the quality of education often falls far short of best practices (particularly outside of university settings, like in most schools), whether from lack of funding or lack of contact hours or a lack of any attempt to move beyond the very basics of a language or all of the above.

Due to the critical learning period, we know that the best time to start learning a language is as a child. You can absolutely start learning as an adult, but children just tend to internalise new languages better and faster. However, school-level education in foreign languages is very poor in Australia. Most primary schools only provide between 45–60 minutes of class time a week, and most of that is spent rote-memorising lists of things, like numbers, colours, days of the week and so on. There’s usually no continuity between primary and secondary school, so you have to start again there. And uh, maybe my high school is not representative, but we never made it past chapter 3 (of 20ish) of any of my French textbooks in high school, and then the language was no longer offered beyond year 9. Some students do language schools on the weekend, but these are mostly community-run schools for people belonging to that ethnic community. There are also, scattered around the place, some public schools offering bilingual education; my own high school started a French bilingual program in my last couple of years there, and the original article mentions Footscray Primary having one (even though they’re changing the language involved from Vietnamese to Italian). But if you can’t get into a public school offering one of these programs, your best option is to send your child to a swanky private school, which is insanely expensive.

The tale of Footscray Primary brings me to the next problem with school-level foreign language education: you can’t really choose which language you learn. Even if you moved to a suburb specifically because of the language the local public school taught, they could change it on you. What this means is that if you do have a connection to a specific language – a heritage language that isn’t English, or maybe your family lived in a specific country for a while and you’d like your child to keep building on that linguistic foundation, or maybe you learned a foreign language yourself and you’d like your child to learn the same one so you can help each other practise, or maybe (if you are the child) you have a really strong interest in, say, Japan’s cultural output and you want to learn Japanese so you can get more deeply into it – that’s just too bad. You don’t get a choice. (Well, sometimes at high school there’s a choice, but still from a limited number of options.) Basically, that entire critical learning period is wasted learning languages that may not have any significance to you, and not even learning them very well. Probably not completely wasted, because having experience learning any language at all tends to help with learning others, just because there are some common principles behind language learning that apply no matter what the target language is. But considering the poor quality of the education often provided, probably nearly completely.

If Australia was serious about young people learning Asian languages (or any other languages!), we wouldn’t pin all our hopes on young people taking university courses in them, and then sticking with them even though the pace of university-level learning is crazy fast for someone who’s never seriously had to learn a language before. We would start from those very early school years and offer a high-quality education with many more contact hours than one per week. We would have a much better system (or you know, any system at all) to match students with a language they’re actually interested in learning, even if it involved bussing students to neighbouring schools that offered different languages, and/or online learning. And we’d offer continuity in that school-level education, instead of students re-learning the basics every single year because some students might be new to the school and never have encountered that school’s chosen LOTE before. (Although I do see why you might let kids re-choose at year 7 if they don’t like the language their parent chose for them, and have separate tracks for those who learned the whole way through and the year 7 switchers.) We’d also make much more effort to connect kids with kids in the countries whose language they’re learning, which the internet is a godsend for – it’d be much more motivating to learn, say, Indonesian if you have online friends to speak Indonesian with. Some schools really try, but this is a systemic issue that needs a systemic solution, if we want to solve it at all. And to be honest, I don’t think the majority of Australians do.