Education: Learning Chinese in the Asian century

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Jane Orton outlines the challenges for secondary school students studying Chinese language in Australia following the recent release of the government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper implementation proposals.


In late 2012, the federal government released its long awaited White Paper, Australia in the Asian Century.

Education is a strong plank in the platform of proposals, but there were only two references to what might be sought after in the area of Asian languages education: all school students are to “have access to” the continuous study of either Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Hindi, and they will be “encouraged to continue their study.”

When I was contacted the following day of the paper’s release by a number of Australia’s leading daily newspapers, many wanted to know how language teacher education was going to cope.

I could only point out that in education ‘having access to’ a course most strongly connotes being able to take it online, so not many more teachers would be needed;
and while retention is a huge problem,
with 95 percent of those who start Chinese giving up the moment they can,
the government had given no clue as to what they had in mind that would encourage students to continue.


We had to wait a further five months, until April 1, 2013, for the release of the government’s final implementation plan for White Paper proposals, but even there, the concrete details of funding and scheduling of educational developments are missing, reportedly because they are embedded in packages involving the full range of Gonski recommendations for the financing of education yet to be accepted by state ministers of education.

One newspaper reported a school principal saying the government had done nothing for Chinese language education since NALSSP funding ceased three years ago. The following morning Minister Garrett wrote to the papers to rebut this, citing the National Curriculum in Chinese being the first to be released and saying that, if the state ministers signed up, there would be [undisclosed] benefits provided. To date just what is being offered remains unrevealed.
What is set out below is what is needed in provision and encouragement for Chinese language study if the White Paper aspirations for future university students and graduates who can successfully work and interact with China could possibly be  realized.
To provide most Australian school students with access quite quickly to language courses online, or in ‘blended’ mode using some face-to-face teaching combined with online teaching. This should not be difficult for Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian. Quite a lot of online programs have been developed over the past five years by the Department of Education Distance Learning units in various States, and also more locally in regional hubs which relay lessons on the Internet to small and remote communities. In principle, access to a course should not be a problem, though as the newcomer in the school system Hindi presumably is barely at the starting point.


Online courses can be adequate for instruction, but fixed courses are limited in responsiveness to individual needs and interests, and even interactive online learning can be a lonely business unless very well and intelligently supported at the student end. Good online activities are great supplements to a school-based program, providing more than an individual teacher might be able to provide. Human contact though is very important in success at school, so except in remote areas, it should be cheaper and more productive long-term to hire a local teacher.

In Victoria at least, there is a large surplus of qualified teachers of Chinese. More pertinent to success, however, is the frequency of contact. Even face-to-face teaching will not result in much learning if it only amounts to 30 minutes per week.
China’s National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, better known by its abbreviated Chinese name, the Hanban, has set up the Confucius Institutes to give ‘direct support to schools’ in the form of Confucius Classrooms, for which they provide resources for decorating a Chinese-dedicated teaching space.

These have been particularly aimed at primary learners. They have also provided some school hubs with an Exploratorium, a set of interactive resources presenting topics from Chinese history and culture. The Hanban also funds speaking competitions and has supported initiatives to link schools in the two countries via the Internet. Their greatest impact to date on provision, however, has been their excellent educational tours to China for pairs of Australian school leaders, who visit classes, meet counterparts and see the sights of major cities.


Shocked into awareness of what this Asian century is all about, participants come back filled with zeal to get Chinese going in their school.

Sadly, 95 percent of students who start Chinese in primary or secondary drop out as soon as they can. The cause generally comes down to finding it hard and/or boring, and feeling they are not making much progress despite their best efforts. And many at all levels find their best efforts are blitzed by the super proficiency of the home speakers in their class.
To date the competent speakers are rarely separated from beginner learners so that each group has the opportunity to work well and stay motivated. Another reason for separating these two groups of learners is because the content of their learning needs to be different. Chinese presents some very particular challenges for English speaking learners, notably tones and characters, so it can take quite a lot of work and time just to get going.

More importantly, a major factor in the situation is that the learning challenges of these elements are poorly understood by teachers and not well taught, sometimes barely taught at all. As language teacher training in Australia is generic (all languages in together), and virtually no language teacher educators know Chinese, trainee teachers of Chinese do not get the information and training in technique they need to help students manage the very specific challenges of Chinese; and as most of the teachers are first language speakers themselves, they have no understanding of the nature of the learning problems their language presents to an outsider. Furthermore, most teachers of the language in Australia grew up in a very different education system, one where memorization of facts was valued, not the development of intellectual curiosity or the internalizing of material through engagement with it in a variety of activities.

By Australian standards their lessons are often narrow and dull, and the learning made more difficult than necessary as nothing is done to alleviate the huge burden on memory that Chinese, with its strange vocabulary and all those characters, presents. These are the factors that “encouragement” needs to target if it is to be effective.

The Year 12 Debacle
In every state in Australia there are three kinds of students of Chinese. Though names differ from state to state (and sometimes even contradict), most states provide separate streams of work and assessment in the last two years of school for first language speakers (L1s) who have grown up in China and do their last two years of school here, and for second language speakers (L2s), who have entirely, or almost entirely, grown up in Australia and gone to school here. One constant problem for more than 30 years has been the very high ratio of the third kind of student, the Chinese home speakers, within this L2 stream, whose success pushes the marks of genuine school learners down severely.
In an attempt to deal with this, Victoria has regulated that any candidate who has had more than three years living in a Chinese society or one year at a Chinese middle school, must be assessed on an advanced level (AL2) of the L2 assessment process, but this has had only limited impact. Since the 1989 amnesty on immigration for Chinese, and the eased residency regulations in the following decade, there has been a huge number of young Chinese couples setting up home in Australia. Untouched by any residency regulations to take AL2 (which only exists in Victoria, anyway), their children, who have spoken Chinese since birth, and have usually also done some 10 years literacy development in Saturday community schools, are now presenting at Year 12 in all States and swamping the school learners of Chinese.

As Year 12 assessment is rank ordered, the more super-proficient home users naturally come in ahead of even the best classroom learners of the language, and the latter find themselves slithering down the score chart not because of any lack in their learning or progress, but simply due to the overwhelming numbers ahead of them (something like 820: 150 in Victoria, 650: 80 in NSW). Students who expect to get in the 40s (out of a maximum of 50) in all their subjects end up with 32 or 27 for Chinese.

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This is devastatingly unrepresentative of their effort or capabilities to learn Chinese as a school subject, and those who experience it are often too wretched to talk about it even months later. Such a score is of little use towards university entrance, and schoolmates and younger siblings looking on often draw their own conclusions and drop the language once they can, or simply choose to learn another one with a higher chance of reward. Parents can only agree, while schools, so intent on maintaining their Year 12 ratings in the market, don’t argue.

In my 2008/2010 report, The Current State of Chinese Language Education in Australian Schools, I pointed all this out. Nothing has changed and as proclaimed so far, implementation of the White Paper will not even touch on this critical factor. The new National Curriculum for Chinese [an initiative already three years old when the White Paper appeared] does provide for a separate course of study for the middle group – called Background Learners – but it will be up to each state to arrange for it to be taught and, most importantly, to decide who should/must go into that stream. Proficiency divisions would be hard to define tightly at the margins, and a nightmare to police. The curriculum only runs to Year 10, so is not directly relevant to the final year situation.
Beacon of Hope
On April 1, an article by John Garnaut and Philip Wen in the Sydney Morning Herald showcased the work of West Richmond Primary School in Melbourne.

A small school, built alongside huge old public housing flats in an inner city suburb now home to as many professionals as refugees, WRPS runs hugely successful [separate] bilingual programs in Chinese/English and Vietnamese/English, as options to its English-only program.

In the bilingual programs, at midday on Wednesday the children simply shift from English to their second language and keep going with their schoolwork. I can attest to the fact that their results in Chinese are fantastic: 22 kids from English speaking homes in each of Prep, Grade 1 and Grade 2, who think in Chinese, speak it fluently and naturally with anyone, Chinese or not, and write away in characters with speed and accuracy typical of their age. The key to the success of WRPS is that it is, first and foremost, a good school across the curriculum; secondly, the program is voluntary; and thirdly, of course, the language is also well taught. Research has long shown that the drivers for language acquisition are need and opportunity. For the students of WRPS, learning Chinese is genuinely meaningful: they use Chinese as they do English, as the means to socialize, to find out about the world, and to express themselves.

It doesn’t take much money to achieve, it just takes understanding of the task and skilled teachers. 


*Jane Orton, PhD is Director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre (CTTC) at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, a research and professional development centre for the teaching and learning of Chinese in primary and secondary schools. In the past five years she has published several research projects into Chinese language education. Her latest publication is: Developing Chinese Oral Skills – a Research Base for Practice, in Research in Chinese as a Second Language. Jane has been a member of the ACBC since 1987 and served as a member of the Executive and Vice President of ACBC (Vic) from 1995-2001. She is currently a member of the ACBC (Vic) Education Sub-Committee.


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