Australia’s language deficit is a threat to its role in the global economy
By Kathleen Turner
Can Australia remain competitive and influential in an increasingly networked world, if we do not speak the languages of our neighbours?
While millions of people around the world are learning English, Australia has fallen behind by not devoting sufficient time, resources and effort to second language learning. It is generally not disputed that the Australian population is lacking in the necessary language skills in relation to future national economic growth partly because of the status of English as the language of international communications.
Indeed, language learning at Australian schools and universities has been on a downhill trend for a long time now and educators and advocates of foreign language literacy have been completely disillusioned by a trend that seems inevitably veering towards the extinction of certain languages being taught.
The problem is that language learning at Australian educational institutions is not seen by governments and local education decision-makers as an asset to bilateral relationships. Despite the best intentions of a small stalwart of language experts and educators, schools and universities are not adopting foreign language learning as a priority. There is no interest.
The situation is ominous in many Australian states and territories. In Queensland there has been the disbanding of more than 70 per cent of the Indonesian language programs in secondary schools since 2003. In addition, despite the Brisbane Languages Alliance which allows cross-institutional enrolment at the two remaining universities in Queensland which still offer Indonesian, there has arguably been a 60-70 per cent overall decline in the tertiary numbers since 2008.
At the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, staff and budget cuts over recent years at the School of Culture, History and Languages within the College of Asia and the Pacific, have seen teaching of languages such as Javanese stopped and senior academics in Thai and Vietnamese moved away from secure appointments. This was particularly disconcerting for many due to the university’s long record of excellent in research within languages.
Several businesses have argued that an inability to trade in languages other than English is damaging Australia’s export performance. Indeed, the language deficit in Australia is truly serious with most sectors having no foreign language ability for the markets they serve and disconcertingly, the largest language deficits are for the fastest developing markets.
Most sectors have no language expertise in the markets they serve
To prove the point, Diversity Council Australia’s 2015 Leading in Asian Century report, which established the first ever ‘Australian workforce in the Asian Century’ national benchmarks, concluded that on 5.1 per cent of the overall workforce are fluent in one or more Asian languages; that is, those who can comfortably discuss and write about highly complex issues with colleagues and clients.
Languages, more than ever, are and will be more in demand in the future, as industry equips itself with a workforce capable of supporting markets and clients. The world is changing rapidly and new political, economic and social dynamics mean that Australian government and industry have to recalibrate their strategic outlooks.
While the international environment has changed profoundly, Australia’s engagement with the world has synchronously continued to expand. It means that Australia needs to ensure, more than ever before, that its international engagement continues to work in such a way that Australia continues to prosper.
One of the main sources of demand for international engagement is Australia’s two-way trade and investment. In 2017 this was worth $763 billion. Australia’s top two-way trading partners are mainly in North Asia with substantial trade also with the US, UK and New Zealand. Germany is also in the top ten and there is a clear running of South-East and South Asian countries in at least the top 15 with predicted growth in the majority of these countries over the next five years. The countries which make up the 21 member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group are by far Australia’s top two-way trading partners.
Undertaking a simple matching exercise makes it possible to identify the languages, other than English, most associated with these countries. According to a Euromonitor International ranking of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between 2010 and 2020, countries such as Brazil and Indonesia show the most dramatic growth followed by countries including China, India, Russia, Mexico and South Korea also show comparatively strong growth.
According to the joint CBI/Ernst & Young publication Winning Overseas, which is explicit about the need for better language skills, a listing of high-growth markets and their associated languages identifies the languages of South-East Asia and North Asia as important, but also Spanish and Arabic.
The growing importance of emerging economies will have implications for global influence, consumption, investment and the environment. Their developing consumer markets present enormous opportunities for businesses.
Arguably when it comes to investing time, money and effort, it is critical for business and government to be able to invest in those languages, such as those associated with our most important and growing trading partners, where their efforts and resources are going to prove most effective for their particular needs.
Language investment should parallel investment in free trade deals
Likewise, it is recognised by government and business that free trade agreements (FTAs) are a critical way in which we can tap into regions which are undergoing periods of significant economic transformation. Rising incomes and living standards particularly across the Indo-Pacific are generating increased demand for goods and services. By 2050, almost half the world’s economic output is expected to come from the Indo-Pacific.
Australian business looks to the FTAs as a way of facilitating stronger trade and commercial ties, contributing to increased economic integration between participating countries. Importantly FTAs open up opportunities for Australian exporters and investors to expand their businesses into key overseas markets such as those high growth markets and emerging economies.
Following the successful ratification of FTAs with China, Japan and South Korea, Australia is in the process of negotiating a number of important trade agreements including with Indonesia and India. FTAs are international treaties and are a vital mechanism in reducing barriers to trade and investment.
In a similar vein, Australia is also investing heavily in its defence capabilities to strengthen its security in the more complex strategic environment it will face in the years ahead. The Defence Department has emphasised since the release of its 2016 White Paper the need for a more active and internationally engaged Defence posture to achieve its objectives. The paper highlights the need to recalibrate Australia’s strategic agenda due to the dramatically changed global environment. Issues of defence and security have become more important with growing interconnectivity. This means that events across the world have even further potential to affect Australia’s security and prosperity.
Central to the development of the Defence White Paper has been the Federal Government’s direction to align defence strategy, capability and resources. Addressing the growing gap between planning and resourcing by increasing defence funding will provide a sustainable basis for future investment and procurement decisions.
To deliver the capabilities set out in this Defence White Paper, the Government’s long-term funding commitment provides a new 10-year Defence budget model to 2025–26, over which period an additional $29.9 billion will be provided to Defence. Under this new budget model, the Defence budget will grow to $42.4 billion in 2020–21, reaching two per cent of Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) based on current projections.
Under a new long-term funding commitment by the Australian Government, the White Paper underlines international engagement as growing core business. It mentions the countries of Japan, Indonesia, India, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, China and others a key partners where increased partnerships are vital. The Defence Cooperation Program is already providing defence assistance to 28 countries, which will be enhanced to build the confidence and capacity of our important regional partners.
For Australia to reach its ambitious defence and security objectives, the document has formally acknowledged the growing importance to language competence within the defence and security sectors, with specialist knowledge of foreign states, languages, and peoples now explicitly seen to be an important skill set.
For example, the national security agenda now encompasses conflict prevention and peace-building, activities in which language assumes an important role. Similarly, new linguistic skills are required to counter the growth of cyber-crime enabled by the ease of global communications and terrorism.
Education policy should be linked to international business engagement
Overall the language deficit in Australia, if not tackled, is a threat to our competitiveness, influence and standing in the world, as well as to our citizens’ ability to play a meaningful role in the global economy and in an increasingly networked and interconnected world.
Whilst the Asian Century White Paper is underpinned by the message of being able to “engage better”, this will clearly be a challenge if Australians do not have language skills commensurate with our vested and growing interest in our primary international markets.
It is therefore recommended firstly, that the Australian Government take a more strategic approach to language education policy, linking it to national aspirations for international engagement in business. Whilst all languages are equal from a linguistic point of view, when it comes to investing time, money and effort in the learning of languages, practical factors inevitably come into play. Politicians, taxpayers, parents and learners all want to be able to invest in those languages where their efforts and resources are going to prove most effective for their particular needs.
Often when people think of languages in Australia, they tend to think of ‘goingaway’. That is, travelling overseas. However, given Chinese direct investment into the agribusiness and mining spaces, Korean investment into biotechnology, Malaysian military cooperation in the Northern Territory, and French collaboration in cyber security, which all make huge contributions in and to the Australian economy, there is no need to cross borders to find situations and jobs where even a little Chinese, Japanese, or French can be a real business and career enhancer.
Current needs and the demands must be considered alongside changing global patterns of economic and cultural exchange and what this might mean for languages needed in the future. Australia’s position in the world depends not only on its membership of multilateral organisations like the Commonwealth, ASEAN, APEC, the OE CD but also on considering where trust between other countries and Australia could be enhanced by a greater understanding of their languages and cultures.
Secondly, it is recommended that the Australian Government and business should work together to develop educational policy relating to languages and international skills, as these have a direct impact on Australia’s prosperity and international influence.
In the context of changing economic landscape and subsequent needs for our future workforce, the Australian government and business need to focus on the long-term strategic needs for languages and perhaps ask which of them are most likely to meet Australia’s needs and aspirations over the next 20 years or so.
Finally, it is recommended that Australian businesses should be encouraged to invest in the development of the linguistic skills in their own organisations from which they will benefit directly.
Kathleen Turner leads Newcrest Mining’s global Social Performance and Human Rights Assurance Program.
Disruptive Asia is a thought-leadership project by Asia Society Australia launched in 2017. It presents – through long-form essays – new perspectives and policy recommendations on how Asia’s rise is impacting Australia’s foreign policy, economy and society and how Australia should respond. Disruptive Asia deliberately looks at both external aspects of Australia’s relationship with Asia (foreign policy, business connectivity, international education) and their domestic implications and manifestations (community relations, leadership diversity, education settings and capabilities).