Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Gillard's Asian language plan is straight out of her behind. No brain involvement in the matter at all
There is a reason why so many high school students drop out of Asian languages - they're just too hard. And anyone who knew anything about the matter would have told her that -- if she had asked
Language learners of Australia, let's be honest: we are not going to become a nation of Mandarin speakers overnight as Prime Minister Gillard would like us to be.
As for her Asian white paper and its lofty goals for language studies and Australian high-schoolers, I wonder if we are thinking this through enough?
We're making a mistake if we think we can coerce high school children into learning Asian languages because, frankly, they are difficult for children with an untrained Anglo ear.
As Michael Maniska, the principal of Sydney's International Grammar School, told Lateline on Monday night, when you start learning a European language you can expect to have to invest 600 to 700 hours before you attain the basic level of proficiency. To attain that same level of proficiency in Mandarin or Japanese you have to invest 2100 to 2200 hours, according to the US Foreign Service Institute.
This is where the latest white paper on a cultural and economic interchange with Asia falls flat.
Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language in their teens or later, no matter how enthusiastic they are, knows how hard it is to learn it "cold". That is, without exposure as a preschooler.
For anyone over the age of 12, the intonations, grammar, sentence structures and colloquialisms of another language seem like an Everest to master. That's why you see older people maintaining accents even if they've emigrated in their teens.
This learning hurdle is as true for high school students as it is for business people who are told by their bosses to buy a few language tapes (or search the internet) to learn some of the lingo for that overseas posting.
In the past, for English speakers, it's been relatively easy to learn a foreign language. European languages such as French (the dominant diplomatic pidgin), Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and German, shared the same Roman alphabet and many words. Those wanting to learn Greek or Russian had greater hardships, as the alphabets were different, though there were a few strands of familiarity that still crept through, both in alphabets and in word usage.
But Chinese and Japanese both use different alphabets and very subtle juxtaposition of symbols to create nuances in their written languages. This subtlety also extends to the tonal nature of their pronunciation and vocabulary, where it's much easier to make mistakes than in the European languages. That is why high school students drop out of Asian languages - if offered - at a high rate. They're just too hard. It is rare that an 18-year-old without an Asian background will sit the HSC in an Asian language.
I'm bilingual - German and English - and they're the only languages that remain imprinted on my mind.
In young adulthood I learnt three other languages. Two, French and Spanish, proved easy for pronunciation but difficult for grammar. Both dropped away without any use.
There were two real killers learning as a teenager: grammar and pronunciation. For grammar, you had to get your head around German sentences like: "Ich bin zu den Laeden gestern gegangen." (I have to the shops yesterday went.) For the Romance languages, you have elaborate subjunctives.
Although translation devices will never replace a competent, on-the-ground teacher who acts as a translator and mentor, there are both good and bad ones at the touch of a mouse or an app. You just have to choose the right one.
So is it realistic to make Asian language learning a priority for our schools? The sentiment's fine; it's just very impractical. Besides, we have a great pool of people in Australia who already speak so many Asian languages due to our diversity. Just hop on a western Sydney train line and you'll hear them speaking their native tongue.
Business people who travel from Shanghai to Singapore, or from Tokyo to Taipei will tell you time and again that unless you're on the pointy end of trade, people in Asia won't want you to practise your dodgy local language skills on them: they want to practise their YouTube versions of English on you.
You're there to talk business or science or education, so stick to what you're good at, unless you have the magic ear.
A vision for an exchange between Australia and Asia is laudable. Where curiosity and a greater cross-cultural understanding thrives, the economy will automatically follow. Pushing it with stumbling Mandarin-speakers is just an artificial construct.
Spending billions on languages and scrambling to find the teachers isn't the answer for Australia. Spending billions on better, egalitarian education, and fostering research beyond digging holes in the ground, is.
Mainland removed from zone for asylum seekers
THE flow of asylum-seeker boats has surged by more than a third since the reintroduction of the Pacific solution, leading the government to adopt a further measure of excising the Australian mainland from the migration zone.
More than 5700 asylum seekers have arrived since August 13, the cut-off date from when the government has warned boat arrivals could be sent to Nauru or Manus Island for processing.
That compares to 4300 over the same period before the cut-off, a 39 per cent increase in boats and a 32 per cent increase in people.
The Houston report commissioned by the government and released on August 13 warned that the Pacific solution alone would not stop the boats and all its recommendations should be implemented.
The recommendation to excise Australia from the migration zone was adopted by the government yesterday.
This means anyone who arrives on the Australian mainland by boat will be sent offshore for processing to Nauru or Manus Island.
Presently, they are processed onshore and receive bridging visas and limited work rights.
The measure was once so controversial that, six years ago, the Howard government backed off trying to introduce it following a revolt by Liberal moderates. In a sign of how the politics has changed, Labor's Melissa Parke was the only person to voice concern when the legislation was put to caucus yesterday for approval. She questioned whether the move was consistent with Australia's international obligations.
The Coalition slammed the government as hypocrites but is likely to support the legislation.
However, two Liberal moderates, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan, said they would cross the floor and not support it.
Since 2008, after Labor was elected, only 211 people have reached the mainland by boat whereas more than 28,200 have reached islands such as Christmas Island, which are already excised from the migration zone.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said excising the mainland was necessary because more people are expected to try to reach the mainland to avoid being sent to Nauru or Manus Island.
"These are difficult decisions for everybody but we do need to have in place a properly integrated system which says to people there's a safer way of getting to Australia," he said.
Mr Bowen also tabled legislation yesterday appropriating money for the $1.6 billion asylum seekers will cost the budget this financial year. This includes $1.2 billion in costs detailed in the midyear budget update last week and another $267 million taken from the contingency reserve for initial construction costs on Nauru and Manus Island.
Mr Bowen said excising the mainland did not contravene Australia's obligations under the UN Refugee Convention but refugee advocates were outraged.
The human rights lawyer Rachel Ball said the excision was without precedent for a country signed on to international conventions.
"Excision is an affront to justice and the rule of law," she said.
The Labor Left is uncomfortable with the policy direction. Senior figures have sought a dialogue with Mr Bowen to ensure it is at least kept abreast of changes and can monitor them.
Students suspended following comments on Facebook page
The Principal sounds rather high and mighty but the school does appear to be a rather violent one so maybe that is relevant. Some posts do appear to have been genuinely abusive. Suspending students over it is pretty dubious however. Should we not expect a school to try education instead?
A GOLD Coast principal has launched a crackdown on cyber bullying, suspending any student who posts abusive messages on a school Facebook page.
Southport High School principal Steve McLuckie has suspended several students behind a series of vicious cyber attacks on the Facebook page.
The move has divided education heavyweights and the school community. Some parents say the principal is going too far and limiting their children's right to free speech, but supporters praise Mr McLuckie for taking on "trolls".
"I am not backing away from this," Mr McLuckie said. "We are taking a stand. This type of bullying and harassment should not be tolerated."
The offensive messages have been posted on Facebook page Souhtport (sic) High Memes which has more than 500 "likes".
Other posts ask students to name which teacher is their least favourite, sparking a tirade of abuse from past and present students.
The page was created on August 23 and Mr McLuckie yesterday confirmed several students had been suspended.
"It is not a private page, this is a public page," he said. "The comments are inappropriate and will not be tolerated. If you are going to be inappropriate, then we will take action. "Bullying and harassment will simply not be tolerated, and we stand by that."
Mr McLuckie said the students were posting highly offensive material on a public page and had to understand it was unacceptable.
"We, as a society, do not put up with anyone putting people down and belittling them," he said. "As a society we do not accept that, and we are trying to educate and train students to be a part of that society."
Parents have had a mixed reaction to the school's tough stand, with some completely unaware that their children were posting the offensive material.
Mr McLuckie said several parents and students had apologised, but not everyone was supportive.
One mother, who asked not to be named, had two students at the Southport school and said they had a right to free speech. "They haven't done anything wrong. They have posted on a Facebook site - so what," she said. "They have accessed the site in their own time. The school has no right to punish my children for what they do in their own time. "That's my job. The school is out of line."
The Southport High School is not the only meme page - hundreds of the Facebook pages have popped up around the country.
Coalition mocks Labor's 'on track' surplus
The Federal Opposition is mocking the Government's economic strategy, accusing it of walking away from its promise to deliver a budget surplus this financial year.
Labor is no longer guaranteeing it will achieve a surplus, instead saying it is "on track" to achieve the $1.1 billion surplus forecast in last week's budget update.
Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey says the Government will abandon its commitment. "Every time, they try and look for a different word," he told Parliament. "You get your promise, you get your guarantee, you get your road map, but this is a government that has not delivered a surplus. "It's now planning to have a surplus - 'maybe we'll get there, we hope to get there' - I mean it is a scene out of Thomas the Tank Engine."
Treasurer Wayne Swan points to Labor's record in the financial crisis. "When our country was threatened we saved it," he said. "And who voted against that? Everyone over there."
He says it is impossible to predict what the global economy will do and the Government will take decisions to protect jobs.
The Coalition interrupted Question Time to try and condemn the Government over the issue, but lost the vote 67 to 69.
Government frontbencher Anthony Albanese says the Coalition is being hypocritical because it has not promised to support budget spending cuts.