Aussie students switching to Chinese but Japan’s soft power still inspires


Japanese is the most widely taught foreign language in Australia, and students choose to study it not only for future employment prospects but for the pop cultural intrigue as well.

The economic importance of Australia-Japan relations in the 1970s sparked the growth in Japanese study and saw it rise to unprecedented levels in primary and secondary Australian schools.

However, this top position is no longer a sure thing. According to a report titled “The Current State of Japanese-Language Education in Australian Schools,” by Anne de Kretser, director at the Melbourne Center for Japanese Language Education at Monash University, there has been an overall decrease since 2000 of approximately 16 percent in the number of students studying Japanese.

The reasons for this decline range far and wide, but one commonly acknowledged basis is that the general visibility of Japan has diminished. The focus for Australia, economically and for business, is clearly on China.

“The visibility of the importance of (Japanese) trade and economy, even though in actuality it hasn’t been lost, that visibility has been lost,” de Kretser says. “If you open up the Age or the Australian (newspapers), it’s all China, China, China, so that visibility of China is there.”

Kurt Mullane is director of projects at the Asia Education Foundation in Melbourne, and like de Kretser wants public awareness to be raised about the value in learning Japanese.

“Twenty years ago when there was greater economic focus on the relationship between Australia and Japan, people seemed to understand that Japanese was worth studying, because it’s going to benefit in these kinds of ways,” Mullane says. “I think that profile’s been lost. And I think a lot of that is to do with the rise of China, the rise of India.”

The importance of being “Asia literate” has been pushed by both sides of the government, as well as previous governments in Australia. Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently released a white paper on Australia in the “Asian century.” One national objective it outlined is to increase Asian literacy. By 2025, every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia and all students will have access to at least one priority Asian language — Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian or Japanese.

Having access to a language is one thing, embedding it and stressing its importance is another.

Mullane says there is “a huge amount of work to be done to really get the message across that English alone is no longer enough . . . and I think winning the hearts and minds of students and their families in regards to the value of studying about Japanese culture and language is in its own right a tremendous thing to do.”

Changing student mindsets is never an easy task, but it is even more challenging in this case because Japanese is widely perceived as a difficult subject to learn. Students are aware that Japanese (or any script language for that matter) requires a major commitment and you can’t get by with just a cram session the night before an exam.

Another setback for Japanese study is the inconsistency of funding. De Kretser says that when funding comes in fits and starts, there are almost mirroring spurts of increased and decreased numbers.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP), funded with 62.4 million Australian dollars (about ¥5.5 billion), ends this year. Its goal was to have at least 12 percent of students finish high school with fluency in Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese or Korean by 2020. The recent Asian Century white paper outlines different goals and different target languages — Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese and Hindi. The ability of governments to make a long-term difference to Japanese-language education when funding and policies change every four years is questionable.

Carol Hayes is a senior lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language at Australian National University. She believes governments need a longer-term goal. She is currently working on an NALSSP grant. “But it’s a two-year grant term, and it’s very difficult for me to deliver the key deliverables in a two-year plan to improve pathways between secondary and tertiary education, because we won’t know” if the funding will be there.

A final recurring setback is the isolation of Australia. As an island, the very reason it should be more multilingual is often presented as its downfall. De Kretser says “one of the ultimate problems for all language teachers is that we live in Australia, we are quite isolated, and despite the rhetoric about being global citizens, students don’t necessarily see that in their daily life.”

Hayes agrees. “I don’t think we promote the importance of multilingualness. (People think) ‘I can survive monolingually, I can do business in English, ASEAN talks in English, English is the lingua franca so why bother?’ “

Hayes is calling for language study to be compulsory. And until it is, it is difficult to see exactly how giving access to language learning will convert into students actually taking it up.

In spite of all these challenges, it is not time to bury the textbooks just yet. One clincher Japanese studies has over other languages is its often undervalued soft power. Hayes believes the soft power of Japan is something that needs to be wedded to the education curriculum in Australia. “The hard power of Chinese money, versus the soft power of Japanese ‘anime,’ manga, music, Nintendo DS games, shouldn’t be underestimated.”

The importance and appeal of Japanese pop culture is something unique that has not quite translated for other language studies. “Our kids are all watching Japanese anime, they’re all playing games on DS that are Japanese games, and they’re incredibly embedded into Japanese cultural perspectives via that. I don’t think we’ve managed to wed our teaching to that,” Hayes says.

The Nihongo Tanken Center, a Japanese-style building in a high school in Sydney, brings together the language and cultural aspects of Japan. It provides students up through high school with the opportunity to be immersed in Japan for one day — as an excursion away from their normal school — with all communication in Japanese. Depending on the students’ grade, hiragana, katakana or kanji is used, and there are lots of team-based activities, as well as events like making “onigiri” and participating in quiz games.

During a recent visit to the Tanken Center by Mosman Primary School, students around 8 years old were participating in activities conducted solely in Japanese. From making onigiri to playing with the “kendama” wooden ball toy to engaging in “jan-ken-pon” (paper, rock, scissors), the students were attentive, engaged and having fun.

One of the students, named Isaac, said the best thing about Japanese is the sumo wrestlers, while his female classmate, Leila, said she likes it that Japanese buildings and gardens are different than in Australia.

Tim Griffiths, the center’s coordinator, says he is confident of the future of Japanese-language learning in Australia.

“I think that Japanese will continue, and I think it’s great that there is a recognition and understanding of the importance of studying a second language, and recently the importance of studying an Asian language.”

He also believes there is room for both Japanese and Chinese in Australian education.

“I think as it moves forward, Chinese will become a stronger focus in schools, but I don’t think Japanese will be forgotten. I think Chinese and Japanese will head Australian Asian-language learning.”