Studying Chinese in Australia

The Prime Minister might have ambitious plans to encourage more Australian students to study Mandarin Chinese, but a
Melbourne University academic says there is still a long way to go. John Crone spoke with Jane Orton.

Mandarin is close to the heart of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In 2008 he wowed the Chinese crowds during his first official visit to China as Australian leader and made history when he addressed students in fluent Mandarin at the country’s most prestigious learning establishment, Peking University.
He told the students he had been inspired to study Chinese following the visit of then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to China in 1973 after the Australian Labor Government officially recognised China in 1972.
“That visit inspired my interest in this extraordinary country,” he told the students.

Inspiration, it would seem is still a fundamental reason why many students in Australia still choose not to study Chinese, or for that matter, a second language at all.

According to government figures, currently less than 14 percent of Australian year 12 students study a foreign language and only 5.8 percent study an Asian language. A key recommendation of Rudd’s 2020 Summit has earmarked the need to boost teaching of Asian languages – in particular Mandarin – in primary and secondary schools if Australia is to better promote itself in the region. The aim is to have at least 12 percent of Australian students completing Year 12 fluent in the languages of Australia’s key Asian neighbours – China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea by 2020.


It’s an ambitious plan.

Dr Jane Orton, an Honorary Senior Fellow in Language and Literacy Education at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, says there is still a lot of work to do to meet those targets. Dr Orton is also the director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre – an agreement signed in August 2009 between the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Chinese Language Council International – better known as Hanban. The bid to run the centre was won by The University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. The establishment of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre is the most visible sign to date of work being implemented to improve the quality and relevance of Chinese language education in Victoria and ultimately in the other states and territories of Australia as well.

Dr Orton has always “had a thing” about Australians becoming China literate. In 2007, she published the results of a study into the linguistic skills and background knowledge of Australians working in China. A year later, Dr Orton produced a report on Chinese language education in Australian schools and her latest research has enabled her to define the educational benefits of learning Chinese at school and the linguistic skills and background knowledge needed to sustain the Australia – China relationship. She has also examined how the Chinese language education system has performed in delivering these skills and background knowledge.

Chinese language has been taught in Australian schools since the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, however the real impetus in the teaching of Asian languages and studies began during the Hawke government in the late 1980s and early 1990s through the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Program (NALSAS). This was directed at improving participation and proficiency levels in the four key Asian languages of Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and Korean. But the success of the programme in improving participation and proficiency levels for Chinese, remained low.
“When one looks at the numbers of students taking Chinese as a subject in Australian schools today, one cannot but conclude that Chinese was, and still is, the lame duck of the group,” says Dr Orton.
“In 2008, 330,000 students in Australia studied Japanese, another 320,000 students took Italian as a subject, 210,000 took Indonesian, almost the same number of students studied French, 137,000 took German and, wait for it, just 81,000 – or little more than half of those taking German – opted to study Chinese.”
Dr Orton says it was clear then, that Chinese language had failed to realize ‘lift off’ as a result of the NALSAS program. And she says, one of the key reasons for the growth in the numbers of students taking Japanese and Italian in Australia over the past 20 years, has been the strong support given by the Japanese and Italian governments towards the teaching of the two languages in Australian schools and those governments’ willingness to work with the relevant language teachers’ associations in identifying the most effective ways of promoting and supporting the study of their respective languages in schools.
“The establishment of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre should be seen as a response to this particular point,” Dr Orton says.

A comparison between the Japanese and Chinese situation yields other reasons why Chinese continues to ‘drag the chain’ – including the difficulties surrounding the number of characters Chinese and Japanese students have to learn to become proficient. Japanese students in Year 12 are only expected to memorize 100 characters, while students of Chinese in Year 12 are required to remember 500 characters.

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Another factor is the teaching roster in schools.
“Frequency of contact with the spoken side of the language and even more, the acquisition of Chinese characters, is absolutely fundamental if students are to grasp those aspects of Chinese which are so different from English,” says Dr Orton, who has heard of schools where students may have double lessons of Chinese in the spate of several days and then may not study Chinese again for a further 10 days.
She says there can be administrative reasons behind these sorts of scenarios, however such an arrangement “is not particularly conducive to learning a language such as Chinese – especially when the amount of time devoted to the study of the language dictates the standard of proficiency the student is able to achieve.”

Dr Orton strongly believes that students of Chinese need to be helped and encouraged to believe that the hard work involved in studying the language is worthwhile. She says learning Chinese should be fun and teachers should be conveying to their students the sort of satisfaction they themselves gained from their own study of the language.
“Believe it or not, many teachers just don’t talk to their students in class and share their joy and frustration in learning the language,” Dr Orton says.
“Teachers need to liven up the classroom – to offset many of the textbooks they use.”

Dr Orton concedes that some of the methods used in teaching Chinese leave a lot to be desired, and she is quick to admit that little, or no research, has been done on the most effective ways of teaching the language to primary and secondary school students.
“Clearly this is something the Chinese Teacher Training Centre needs to address.”

Dr Orton says that to achieve a breakthrough in the teaching of Chinese in Australia, teaching the language needs to be based far more on social practice and be culturally focused.
“Only by understanding the background of the kids you are teaching, the things they are interested in and what they value most, can the teacher hope to retain their interest and communicate the different concepts and ideas inherent in the Chinese language.”
One of the most discouraging things a student of Chinese faces, are the clichés surrounding the value of learning a foreign language. For example when a student hears things like, ‘in this day and age, English is all you need – you can always find others able to translate for you.’
Dr Orton says that investments from China, such as those made in the creation of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre will provide the same kind of important support as that provided by the Japanese and Italian governments to increase language study in Australian schools. She says there remain significant challenges to overcome if Chinese is to ever rank alongside other popular second languages studied in Australian schools. Those include recognising that students studying Chinese language need more time on tasks because characters take a lot longer to learn as well as better, research-based teaching.

“Even then, Chinese will remain a challenging choice, but China’s rise in world significance will add motivational power.”


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