‘ My study investigates the complexities and constraints of introducing the Chinese language to a school where it has not been previously offered. Focusing on one school, a Victorian high school, I examined the decision-making processes and the rationale for including the Chinese language in their curriculum.
Although I learnt German at school, I later fell in love with the soft power of Asian languages. Soft power is the cultural interest a language draws through food, arts, history and traditions. Currently, I am a trained Chinese and Japanese language teacher. After eight years of studying the language, and six visits to China, I am considered a proficient Chinese speaker at an intermediate level. I was one of the few Asian language students with a Western background.
I am a teacher of physics and chemistry. I was drawn to my research topic because the Chinese language was not offered at my school. As part of the school’s agreed policy, a second language has to be one of a different culture to the student’s heritage.
This school policy was a revelation to me and partly answered my thesis question. At this school, a large percentage of students are of Chinese heritage who must, therefore, learn another culture’s language.
A recent article by Jane Orton in The Age estimated that the number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia, who are of non-Chinese background, is 130 at most, and half of this number is aged 55 or over. My understanding of Victorian schools is that Chinese is overwhelmingly taught to Chinese heritage students. But why were non-heritage speakers deterred from, or disinterested in, learning Chinese in schools across Victoria?
My research is relevant because as a teacher immersed in the Victorian education system, I have experience working hands-on at the local level.
Most full-time PhD students complete their studies within a short three years. My part-time research over six years allowed me to take a long-term view, comparing the gap between rhetoric and reality in the schooling system. My study offers a long-term snapshot of the situation in schools and has freshened the rhetoric.
My thesis evaluated why certain cultural groups have a greater interest in maintaining their languages. From post-war to the 1990s, waves of Jewish, Greek and Vietnamese migrants were proactive in maintaining their native language within the Australian school system. Interestingly, research has revealed that Sri Lankan Indian migrants did not push to maintain their language at school.
I have found that migrants effectively communicate and flourish in the Australian community without 100 per cent proficiency in English. I believe that Chinese language students of non-heritage background can also be effective communicators in that language, without being completely proficient.
In the 1980s and 90s, a ‘tsunami of Japanese’ occurred in Australian schools following a high influx of Japanese migrants. The language was hugely accepted among non-heritage speakers due to its popular soft power attraction. Students were drawn to the language due to the cultural attractions of anime, sushi, geishas and Japanese history. And, unlike Chinese language students, these students did not have to compete against large numbers of heritage Japanese students.
However, Chinese soft power is not as attractive to young students. Although there are clear long-term economic advantages in understanding the language of one of Australia’s largest trading partners, 13-year-old students don’t perceive any immediate gain or benefit for themselves. Therefore, it is not a language of choice.
Non-heritage students are deterred from learning or persevering with the Chinese language because they believe they cannot compete with native speakers. As a result, just 5 per cent of non-Chinese students who enrol in Chinese at secondary school continue it to Year 12.
But the reality is that the exam standard for Chinese is lower than that of French because it is a more difficult language to learn. My argument is that you don’t need to be 100 per cent proficient to communicate in the Chinese language. Unlike some non-heritage speakers, many Asian students say when faced with learning difficulties, ‘I must try harder’ rather than ‘I can’t do it’.
As a TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of other Languages) teacher, I have found that migrants effectively communicate and flourish in the Australian community without 100 per cent proficiency in English. I believe that Chinese language students of non-heritage background can also be effective communicators in that language, without being completely proficient.
The problem in Australia is there’s no overarching motivation for students to learn a language other than English. Many Australian parents don’t value foreign languages and, therefore, their children don’t value it either. It’s a hard slog putting a long-term viewpoint in a society that thinks ‘what’s the short-term gain’ in learning Chinese? ’
Shaun Kemp’s thesis was titled ‘Language planning at the school level: The Great Wall of Chinese.’
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.