Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Language cuts risk Australia's regional relationships -- or do they?

It is a common view among educated people that we all should learn a foreign language. Although I personally gained a lot from my studies of German, Latin and Italian, I do not agree. I get a lot out of classical music and what I gained was an enhanced understanding of those three languages as part of classical music. With the honourable exception of Russian, those three languages are the source language of almost the whole of the classical music repertoire. If you want to undertand the words in a Bach cantata, it helps a lot to know German. And you need Latin for the Stabat Mater etc.

But how many people really enjoy classical music? Best estimate is 2% of the population so why should the rest of the population study languages?

In answering that I hearken back to the fact that only a tiny percentage of English-speakers who study (say) French ever become fluent in that language. I have a small gift for languages but even I am fluent only in English. So the time spent studying a language is a waste for most people in the English-speaking world. And that goes
A fortiori for students of Asian languages. Asian languages are so alien to us that even many years of exposure to them in adulthood will not suffice to bring native fluency

But is partial fluency useful? Perhaps for tourists but for business a very accurate understanding of the other person is usually important, which leads us to the real important factor in foreign language utilization: The fact that we have among us a large number of foreign-born people who have learnt both English and their ancestral tongue during childhood.

So they constiutte an easily available pool of near perfect translators. We do not ourselves need to learn a foreign language when we have large numbers of good translators at hand. The are a valuable resource that we should use. They can aid international communication where our own abilities at that would be pathetic.

The author below recounts a pleasing life journey that resulted from his decision to study Indonesian. Indonesia is a country and a culture well below the intellectual horizons of most Australians. But is it nonetheless important to Australians? It is one of the world's largest bodies of Muslims and is rather close to our Northern borders, so its strategic importance must be allowed for but as a source of cultural products or economic relationships it is of negligible importance to us. There are many more things we could study which would be more gainful than the Indonesian language

La Trobe, Swinburne, Murdoch and Western Sydney University. These are some of the Australian universities considering axing various Indo-Pacific language programs from Indonesian to Hindi. It’s feared other universities may follow suit.

Abolishing language programs is a dumb move. Australian universities are a key ingredient in the government’s commitment to engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Universities are essential training grounds for a future generation of Indo-Pacific literate Australians.

The decline in programs corresponds with a decline in enrolments. This is evident with the Indonesian language.

In the 1990s, enrolment in Indonesian language was at its height, with 22 programs at Australian universities. In the decades since then, there has been a major decline.

According to David Hill, emeritus professor of south-east Asian studies at Murdoch University in Perth, in 2019 there were only about 14 Indonesian language programs left at Australian universities. As a result of COVID-19, that number may fall further.

Australian universities must retain language programs, which are vital to equip the next generation for smart engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Institutional commitments to language programs by universities are crucial because studying a language requires a significant investment of time, commitment and money.

As part of my Arts degree I undertook an Indonesian language program, building on my four years of Indonesian language studies in high school.

Yet this was in mid-2000s, when I was one of about 400 students studying Indonesian in Australia. By 2014, those numbers dipped below 200 equivalent full-time students. It is feared that in the future the number of students could be much less.

At university, I was privileged to be taught by the likes of Arief Budiman, a well-known activist and scholar, and Professor Ariel Heryanto, a cultural studies expert.

As part of my degree, I also took Indonesian studies programs like politics, media, religion, law and society. This helped me to appreciate the great diversity and richness of the country’s history, people and culture.

My university also facilitated several internships in Indonesia. It was through contacts at university that I heard about the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program. This collective experience with a group of 15 Australians and 15 Indonesians set me on a course of lifetime engagement with Indonesia.

Many of the Australians on that youth exchange program have found exciting and fulfilling careers in diplomacy, business, academic, education and the civil service. Their skills in the language and their knowledge of Indonesian enabled them to achieve the vocations they now pursue.

Through my university, I also received support from my faculty to undertake an internship with the Office of the Ombudsman in Yogyakarta.

These short-term trips would not have been as rich and meaningful if I did not have basic competence in the language. In short, my years of studying the language in high school and at university equipped me for deep engagement with Indonesia.

Our universities are now at risk of curtailing access to Indonesian language programs for a future generation of students.

If the decision by some Australian universities to close language programs is dumb, then the Australian government is dumber.

Over the past two decades, the government has been told time and time again that student enrolments in languages of the Indo-Pacific are falling, particularly for Indonesian. This is a well-established fact.

Yet the federal government has done nothing about it. Short-term study abroad is no quick fix for an Indo-Pacific literacy crisis. It's great to have the Governor-General of Australia studying Indonesia, but what about the future generation?

The government frequently refers to its commitment to the region and its Indo-Pacific strategy, as set out in its 2016 Defence Paper and 2017 White Paper.

Yet it has failed to live up to this aspiration with real policies that create incentives for Australian students to study languages of the Indo-Pacific and the necessary funding for institutions to make this happen.

What we are left with is a future where there are fewer graduates of Australian universities than ever with basic competence in one language of the Indo-Pacific.

These graduates are going into business, diplomacy, academia, education and science with less knowledge than ever before about our neighbours.

Collaboration and partnership in the Indo-Pacific region require mutual understanding.

Australia’s bilateral relationships are strengthened when Australians take the time to learn a language.

To take one example, the landmark Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement should see more Australians incentivised to study the language, rather than less.

The more students studying Indonesian language, the greater chance we have of building strong relationships with our most important neighbour. Our economic, diplomatic and cultural ties remain hollow without a basic appreciation for the language.

The dual lack of commitment by Australian universities and the government to invest in language capabilities affects our engagement in the region.

Even the embassies based in Australia agree. That’s why the recent consultations to axe language programs at some universities have received a strong and swift response from both the Indian embassy and the Indonesian embassy.

That’s right, our neighbours know it’s important for us to learn their language more than our own government and universities do.

And there lies the challenge for 2021: both the government and Australian universities must work together to ensure Asian language programs not just survive, but thrive, post COVID-19.

Live and let live – and let us die how we choose

The NSW Independent MP Alex Greenwich is, as we speak, drawing up plans for voluntary euthanasia legislation, which – if passed – will see NSW arrive in the 21st century, joining other states around the country in legalising assisted dying for terminally ill patients.

It will be supported by such admirable groups as Dying With Dignity NSW, politicians across the various parties and – to judge by polls on the subject – about 85 per cent of the public. It would mean terminally ill patients, who are medically judged to have less than six months to live, could choose to die at a time of their choosing, rather than at the agonising end of nature’s ravages.

I say again, all of us who have nursed a dying loved one to the very end know that meaningful life often ceases long before the final heart beat, and all too often we are left with no more than a shell of agony left in the bed before us, usually a being totally bereft of all dignity. If they have made it clear that they don’t want to go through this, whose damn business is it but theirs to say they must?

And yet, if previous experience and that of other states is any guide, we can expect fierce opposition to this legislation to come from mostly religious groups, lead by some Catholics who genuinely think that months of agony is all part of God’s plan, and cannot be opposed.

My friends, if that is your view, fine. Go ahead with it when it comes to you and yours. But can you leave the rest of us alone? I repeat: if I am facing a terminal illness, when and how I choose to die is none of your damn business! Not only do I not want you to tell me how to live, I certainly don’t want you to tell me how to die. Just leave us alone. Live and let live, and let us die how we damn well choose. Thank you.

Qld won’t introduce voluntary assisted dying laws by February

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk will break an election promise and won’t introduce voluntary assisted dying legislation by February.

Acting Premier Steven Miles today confirmed the Queensland Law Reform Commission had asked for extra time to draft proposed legislation – pushing back the date for when it can be introduced.

He partly blamed the recent caretaker arrangements for the delay, saying the QLRC was unable to consult on the issue during the October election campaign.

“By providing the law reform commission with the time and resources that they’ve indicated that they need, we can be assured that the Bill that will be considered by the parliament will be the best possible Bill,” he said.

“It means that MPs and the community can be assured that the Bill that will be introduced to the parliament has been very, very carefully considered.

“We will take into account this additional time in the drafting of the Bill when we consider an implementation time frame.”

The QLRC now won’t come back with a final report until May 10 – at least two months after when Ms Palaszczuk had initially promised to introduce legislation to parliament.

Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman said there was a “significant degree of complexity” involved in the review.

“It also comes obviously as community members express a desire for an extension of time to make submissions,” she said.

“We want everyone to be able to have their say. As the Acting Premier said, this will be introduced in the first half of next year.”

Ms Fentiman said the legislation would be introduced to the parliament by the end of May.

She said the extra time meant the government could get work underway now to ensure there is a “shorter implementation time frame” if it passes the parliament.

Ms Palaszczuk announced the surprise timeframe for the legislation at Labor’s election launch in October, saying it was “very important that people have dignity in death”.

“If we are re-elected, we’ll introduce legislation in February, this is a very personal decision, between an individual and the medical practitioners, it’s a very very important issue that people discuss for their end of life care,” she said at the time.

“And yes, I would vote for it.”

Asked why she was speeding up the draft legislation from the original March timeframe, Ms Palaszczuk said she would give the commission extra resources.

“I think it’s a very important issue for Queenslanders, it’s been raised with me countless times, and there’s no reason any extra assistance the Law Reform Commission is needed, we can bring that forward, so the parliament can have a vote,” she said in October.

Queensland Law Reform Commission chair Justice Peter Applegarth said the body “hopes” to meet its new May reporting date.

“The Commission agrees with the government that ‘reform in this area requires careful consideration’ which is ‘informed by views of stakeholders and other experts in the field’,” a statement by Justice Applegarth said.

“It will continue with its existing resources, and with the increased resources which the government has announced, to complete this complex review as soon as it reasonably can.

“... The Commission is committed to doing the best it can, in the time that it has been given, to recommend “the best possible legal framework for people who are suffering and dying to choose the manner and timing of their death in Queensland”.

“It hopes that it will be able to report and provide well-drafted legislation by its reporting date of 10 May 2021.”

The importance of productivity

Something we’ve had to relearn in this annus horribilis is that the state governments still play a big part in the daily working of the economy. Another thing we’ve realised is that the Productivity Commission is so important that some of the states are setting up their own versions.

When you put the word “productivity” into the name of a government agency, you guarantee it will spend a lot of its time explaining what productivity is – a lot of people think it’s a high-sounding word for production; others that it means we need to work harder – and why it’s the closest economics comes to magic.

Earlier this year the NSW Productivity Commission issued a green paper that began with the best sales job for the concept I’ve seen. Its title said it all: Productivity drives prosperity.

Its simple definition of productivity is that it “measures how well we do with what we have. Productivity is the most important tool we have for improving our economic [I’d prefer to say our material] wellbeing,” it says.

“Our productivity grows as we learn how to produce more and better goods and services using less effort and resources. It is the main driver of improvements in welfare and overall [material] living standards.

“From decade to decade, productivity growth arguably matters more than any other number in an economy . . . Growth in productivity is the very essence of economic progress. It has given us the rich-world living standards we so enjoy.”

Productivity improvement itself is driven by increases in our stock of knowledge and expertise (or “human capital stock”) and by investment in physical capital (“physical capital stock”).

But by far the biggest long-term driver of productivity is the stock of advances known as “technological innovation” – a term that covers everything from new medicines to industrial machinery to global positioning systems.

Technology’s contribution to overall productivity growth has been estimated at 80 per cent, the paper says.

“Our future prosperity depends upon how well we do at growing more productive – how smart we are in organising ourselves, investing in people and technology, getting more out of both our physical and human potential.”

The (real) Productivity Commission has pointed out that on average it takes five days for an Australian worker to produce what a US worker can produce in four. (That’s not necessarily because the Yanks work harder than we do, but because they have fancier equipment to work with, and better organised offices and factories – not to mention greater economies of scale.)

The paper notes that productivity improvement hinges on people’s ability to change. “Unwelcome as it has been, the COVID-19 episode has shown that when we need to, we can change more rapidly than we thought. There is no reason we can’t do the same to achieve greater productivity and raise our future incomes.”

Technological innovation is the process of creating something valuable through a new idea. You may think that new technology destroys jobs – as the move to renewable energy is threatening the prospects of jobs in coal mining – but, if you take a wider view, you see that it actually moves jobs from one part of the economy to another and, because this makes our production more valuable, increases our real income and spending and so ends up increasing total employment.

“All through history,” the report adds, “[technological innovation] has been a huge source of new jobs, from medical technology to web design to solar panel installation. And as these new roles are created and filled, they in turn create new spending power that boosts demand for everything from buildings to home-delivered food.

But the thing I liked best about the NSW Productivity Commission’s sales pitch was the examples it quoted of how technology-driven productivity has improved our living standards.

As each month passes, this not-my-department categorisation of “the economy” is becoming increasingly incongruous, misleading and “what planet are you guys living on?”.

Take, medicine. “The French king Louis XV was perhaps the world’s richest human being in 1774 – yet the healthcare of the day could not save him from smallpox. Today’s healthcare saves us from far worse conditions every day at affordable cost.”

Or farming. “In 1789, former burglar James Ruse produced [Australia’s] first successful grain harvest on a 12-hectare farm at Rose Hill. Today, the average NSW broadacre property is 2700 hectares and produced far more on every hectare, often with no more people.”

Or (pre-pandemic) travel. About “67 years after the invention of powered flight, in 1970, a Sydney-to-London return flight cost $4600, equivalent to more than $50,000 in today’s terms. Today, we can purchase that flight for less than $1400 – less than one-30th of its 1970 price.”

Or communications. “Australia’s first hand-held mobile call was made at the Sydney Opera House in February 1987 on a brick-like device costing $4000 ($10,000 in today’s terms). Today we can buy a new smartphone for just $150, and it has capabilities barely dreamt of a third of a century ago.”


Also see my other blogs. Main ones below:

http://dissectleft.blogspot.com (DISSECTING LEFTISM)

http://snorphty.blogspot.com (TONGUE TIED)

http://antigreen.blogspot.com (GREENIE WATCH)

http://pcwatch.blogspot.com (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH)

http://edwatch.blogspot.com (EDUCATION WATCH)

https://heofen.blogspot.com/ (MY OTHER BLOGS)


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