PM – Tuesday, 5 May , 2009  18:46:00
Reporter: Jeff Waters
MARK COLVIN: Leading business, union and academic bodies have formed a new alliance to promote Asian language and cultural studies in Australian schools and universities. The Business Alliance for Asia Literacy was launched in Melbourne today in an attempt to address this country’s patchy commitment to learning about our neighbours.The alliance says that half Australia’s schools teach very little about Asia. Just 6 per cent of final-year students study an Asian language. Just 3 per cent go on to study the languages in universities.Jeff Waters reports.

JEFF WATERS: At a small private language school in Melbourne a group of adults try to get their tongues around Mandarin.
(Sounds from language class)
But it’s schools and universities and the governments that fund them which are being targeted by this new alliance.
(Children speaking Japanese)
Bodies like the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council of Australia and the University of Melbourne’s Asialink have joined forces with the ACTU. Along with a long list of major corporations they’re aiming to convince governments to devote more funding to learning about our neighbours’ cultures and languages.
Heather Ridout is the CEO of the Australian Industry Group.
HEATHER RIDOUT: One of the biggest mega-shifts facing Australia and the whole world is the shift in economic and strategic weight and influence to the Asia Pacific. Now Australia is in this region. It’s our neighbourhood and we need to do more to recognise that.
Education is the fundamental building block to the confidence and capability we’ll need in the future. We’ve been toying with this issue for a long time. We need to make a bigger step in that direction and that’s what business is calling for as part of this alliance.
JEFF WATERS: Earlier this year the Federal Government committed almost $16-million to try to double Asian language tuition by 2015. But while that money was welcomed people like Kathe Kirby from the Asia Education Foundation say more needs to be done.
KATHE KIRBY: It’s a real competitive edge to actually speak the language because with that comes all of the understanding as well. I think that Australia and other English-speaking countries have a very 19th-century view of the world if they think that in the future the whole world will simply speak English and they’ll be right.
JEFF WATERS: Meanwhile Victoria’s Chinese community has been protesting at a decision by Victoria University to drop all of its language courses except for Vietnamese. The University says it’s only responding to student demand but the Chinese Community Council’s Dr Stanley Chiang says he wants the Government to intervene.
STANLEY CHIANG: It really goes against the current trend of our national interest really because we as Australians, we really want to know more about China and of course learning the Chinese language.
And our Prime Minister has already committed more money into building up our knowledge of Asia and be Asia smart and in particular of course knowing the Chinese culture and language. As we know the Prime Minister himself speaks very fluent Chinese.
So I think really we need to know more about China so that we can develop a better relationship and cooperation with China. Now the VU’s decision of course goes against the trend and we think it’s just short-sighted.
MARK COLVIN: The Chinese Community Council’s Dr Stanley Chiang ending that report from Jeff Waters.
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