Language cuts risk Australia's regional relationships -- or do they?

It is a common view among educated people that we all should learn a foreign language.  Although I personally gained a lot from my studies of German, Latin and Italian, I do not agree. I get a lot out of classical music and what I gained was an enhanced understanding of those three languages as part of  classical music. With the honourable exception of Russian, those three languages are the source language of almost the whole of the classical music repertoire.  If you want to undertand the words in a Bach cantata, it helps a lot to know German.  And you need Latin for the Stabat Mater  etc. 

But how many people really enjoy classical music? Best estimate is 2% of the population so why should the rest of the population study languages? 

In answering that I hearken back to the fact that only a tiny percentage of English-speakers who study (say) French ever become fluent in that language. I have a small gift for languages but even I am fluent only in English.  So the time spent studying a language is a waste for most people in the English-speaking world.  And that goes A fortiori for students of Asian languages.  Asian languages are so alien to us that even many years of exposure to them in adulthood will not suffice to bring  native fluency

But is partial fluency useful?  Perhaps for tourists but for business a very accurate understanding of the other person is usually important, which leads us to the real important factor in foreign language utilization:  The fact that we have among us a large number of foreign-born people who have learnt both English and their ancestral tongue during childhood.  

So they constitute an easily available pool of near perfect translators.  We do not ourselves need to learn a foreign language when we have large numbers of good translators at hand.  The are a valuable resource that we should use.  They can aid international communication where our own abilities at that would be pathetic.

The author below recounts a pleasing life journey that resulted from his decision to study Indonesian.  Indonesia is a country and a culture well below the intellectual horizons of most Australians.  But is it nonetheless imporant to Australians?  It is one of the world's largest bodies of Muslims and is rather close to our Northern borders, so its strategic importance must be allowed for but as a source of cultural products or economic relationships it is of negligible importance to us. There are many more things we could study which would be more gainful than the Indonesian language

La Trobe, Swinburne, Murdoch and Western Sydney University. These are some of the Australian universities considering axing various Indo-Pacific language programs from Indonesian to Hindi. It’s feared other universities may follow suit.

Abolishing language programs is a dumb move. Australian universities are a key ingredient in the government’s commitment to engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Universities are essential training grounds for a future generation of Indo-Pacific literate Australians.

The decline in programs corresponds with a decline in enrolments. This is evident with the Indonesian language.

In the 1990s, enrolment in Indonesian language was at its height, with 22 programs at Australian universities. In the decades since then, there has been a major decline.

According to David Hill, emeritus professor of south-east Asian studies at Murdoch University in Perth, in 2019 there were only about 14 Indonesian language programs left at Australian universities. As a result of COVID-19, that number may fall further.

Australian universities must retain language programs, which are vital to equip the next generation for smart engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Institutional commitments to language programs by universities are crucial because studying a language requires a significant investment of time, commitment and money.

As part of my Arts degree I undertook an Indonesian language program, building on my four years of Indonesian language studies in high school.

Yet this was in mid-2000s, when I was one of about 400 students studying Indonesian in Australia. By 2014, those numbers dipped below 200 equivalent full-time students. It is feared that in the future the number of students could be much less.

At university, I was privileged to be taught by the likes of Arief Budiman, a well-known activist and scholar, and Professor Ariel Heryanto, a cultural studies expert.

As part of my degree, I also took Indonesian studies programs like politics, media, religion, law and society. This helped me to appreciate the great diversity and richness of the country’s history, people and culture.

My university also facilitated several internships in Indonesia. It was through contacts at university that I heard about the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program. This collective experience with a group of 15 Australians and 15 Indonesians set me on a course of lifetime engagement with Indonesia.

Many of the Australians on that youth exchange program have found exciting and fulfilling careers in diplomacy, business, academic, education and the civil service. Their skills in the language and their knowledge of Indonesian enabled them to achieve the vocations they now pursue.

Through my university, I also received support from my faculty to undertake an internship with the Office of the Ombudsman in Yogyakarta.

These short-term trips would not have been as rich and meaningful if I did not have basic competence in the language. In short, my years of studying the language in high school and at university equipped me for deep engagement with Indonesia.

Our universities are now at risk of curtailing access to Indonesian language programs for a future generation of students.

If the decision by some Australian universities to close language programs is dumb, then the Australian government is dumber.

Over the past two decades, the government has been told time and time again that student enrolments in languages of the Indo-Pacific are falling, particularly for Indonesian. This is a well-established fact.

Yet the federal government has done nothing about it. Short-term study abroad is no quick fix for an Indo-Pacific literacy crisis. It's great to have the Governor-General of Australia studying Indonesia, but what about the future generation?

The government frequently refers to its commitment to the region and its Indo-Pacific strategy, as set out in its 2016 Defence Paper and 2017 White Paper.

Yet it has failed to live up to this aspiration with real policies that create incentives for Australian students to study languages of the Indo-Pacific and the necessary funding for institutions to make this happen.

What we are left with is a future where there are fewer graduates of Australian universities than ever with basic competence in one language of the Indo-Pacific.

These graduates are going into business, diplomacy, academia, education and science with less knowledge than ever before about our neighbours.

Collaboration and partnership in the Indo-Pacific region require mutual understanding.

Australia’s bilateral relationships are strengthened when Australians take the time to learn a language.

To take one example, the landmark Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement should see more Australians incentivised to study the language, rather than less.

The more students studying Indonesian language, the greater chance we have of building strong relationships with our most important neighbour. Our economic, diplomatic and cultural ties remain hollow without a basic appreciation for the language.

The dual lack of commitment by Australian universities and the government to invest in language capabilities affects our engagement in the region.

Even the embassies based in Australia agree. That’s why the recent consultations to axe language programs at some universities have received a strong and swift response from both the Indian embassy and the Indonesian embassy.

That’s right, our neighbours know it’s important for us to learn their language more than our own government and universities do.

And there lies the challenge for 2021: both the government and Australian universities must work together to ensure Asian language programs not just survive, but thrive, post COVID-19.


  1. I occasionally require a translator in my work, which involves discussion of personal, subtle and psychological matters. Most foreigners know at least a little English, and it is surprising to what extent and subtlety one can communicate if patient and if making use of gestures and drawings, and if controlling the pace of exchanges of points and progressing one small point at a time and establishing certainty on the understanding of that point before moving to the next point. A pen and large notepad are handy for such situations. I have often surprised myself at how relieved and satisfied my clients are that mutual understanding has been acquired despite poor understanding of each other's language. And if required there are state and federal gov funded translation services such as TIS and other services. Knowing other languages would be interesting and handy, but I doubt I could have ever learned any. I have enough difficulties with English. I notice that I can "zero" in to various degrees on the foreign language conversations of others... Is the conversation religious? political? personal? family? work related? intellectual? emotion? and from there pursue further dividing questions, getting finer and finer with the questioning intellectually and "intuitively", so as to zero in on the exact subject of the conversation. I have tested this method by then asking the foreigners what they were discussing, and I have often been exactly right, even when they were quacking away in Chinese. So although knowing another language would be fun and interesting, I have not needed one. And I do a job that requires conversing on all sorts of subjects.

  2. My interest for the English language started as a kid when learning to use a computer, the Commodore 64. Specifically I had a drive to learn English so that I could better play computer games and especially text-based ones. Music also kindled the interest in order to understand the lyrics of many songs on the radio. In my experience English is the key to be able to communicate with most foreigners and one does not have to posess the abilities of Shakespear to make good use of it. Where there is a will there is often a way.

  3. I occasionally meet back-packing Viking tourists in a national park near where I live, and I notice that most can speak English quite well. On one occasion though, last summer, I was driving with a friend through a state forest, exploring the bush tracks. The forest is vast and used mostly by local deer hunters, not tourists. Some colour caught my eye and upon investigation we found an empty camp of several tents. I took mental note of the inds or articles in the camp and deduced they were five foreign back-packers, not Australian bushies. They were on foot as there were no vehicular tyre tracks in the camp. I presumed they had been driven to the location by someone else, possibly hunters, as they were too far into the bush to have walked there. And I presumed the same someone would come to pick them up in several days time. A little further on at a crossed intersection of tracks we found five lost and distressed Vikings with no idea where their camp is. One of the women in the group could speak a little English and she tried hard to tell me they were lost and had a camp somewhere in the forest. But her English was not good enough to explain their predicament and she knew she was not making herself clear. She need not had worried though, for I knew who they were and where their camp is. I had even expected to find them. I smiled and pointed in the direction of their camp and gestured reassuringly for them to go in that direction. It was only a smile and a point, but it changed their faces from distress to relief and thankfulness. I hope their holiday in Australia was an enjoyable and memorable one.

  4. I occasionally go camping but I do not usually venture for long journeys. I traveled to India once to meet a young Swedish lady in my early 20s and was supposed to meet a friend of hers in Mumbai. The guide to be had a change of plans so I arrived there 4 o'clock in the morning in my comfortable suit jacket and a pocketful of little experience in the world. The cab driver insisted that he carry my backpack though I insisted he should not, but appreciated the little man being helpful. I sat in the backseat and instantly a lot of begging hands came through the window. My reaction was to hand out money but soon realised there were too many hands and not enough money so I rolled down the window and gave the driver an address which he did not recognize. He stopped several times during the trip and asked other people for directions, which I did not find to be reassuring. Next he started asking for money and I pretended not to understand using impromptu sign language though I was pretty sure what baksheesh meant. He continued to beg so I told him to stop and I took my backpack and wandered off not really knowing where to go except to look for a some place to stay. I tried to stay away from all the strangers in the night after passing a mumbling man who spat a red fluid on the ground. There were many places to stay but they were all full, except for one to my relief. I asked for a price, made an approximation of the cost in my head and pretty much thought I was going to be ruined if that was the general rate to expect. I had three months to go but going out into the night again was not an option. Went up to the room and sat on the bed and stared into thin air for about an hour. I came to my senses, very tired, so I dozed off. The next morning I ventured out for about 50 meters from the hotel before there was a change of plans; Mumbai was simply too overwhelming. On the way back to the hotel an asian fellow stopped me, we started chatting and he offered to be my guide for what was reasonable price and I was very pleased. He told me I was staying a place where rich Arabs used to frequent and he offered to show me other and more reasonable priced places to stay. Well, days passed and I got lost several times in Mumbai but noticed the top of some familiar buildings and found my way back, except for once. I decided that asking one or more people for direction was useless since I did not remember the name of the place or how to describe it, so I grabbed a cab. He drove the cab about 50 meters and I was good to go.

  5. That sounds like an adventure I would not desire; not even for a young Swedish lady.

    1. Hehe, you are right, was pleased when we parted ways. In hindsight I see that the traveling forced me to change focus from self loathing to be more aware of the world around me and enjoyed meeting some friendly people from the UK. I also found out that a suit jacket is no good when going to New Delhi to Rishikesh by bus in the middle part of January. It was comfortable for the Indians on board though in their down jackets, warm gloves and hats.


All comments containing Chinese characters will not be published as I do not understand them