Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated last Sunday that every Australian child should learn Mandarin, Hindi, or other regional languages as part of Australia’s embrace of the Asian Century. While her new agenda set out in a 300 page report has received its share of harsh criticism and questions about funding, one has to admire the audacity of Gillard’s vision of an Australia that seeks to engage Asian states and societies through an appreciation of their languages and cultures rather than insisting on interfacing with English. This may represent a shift, to invert Bernard S. Cohn’s phrase, from the language of command to the command of language… well, at least if the Australian mindset toward Asia can be shifted in the process.
Meanwhile, America Clings to the “Roman Centuries” …
By way of contrast, America’s supposed “pivot” to Asia continues to lack a serious educational agenda. As my colleague Robert Kelly has noted, there are still more students studying Latin (205,000) in America’s public schools than Chinese (60,000) — even though the number of students studying Chinese has tripled since 2004. While the study of Spanish (6.4 million) certainly makes sense in a country where Spanish is spoken by 34 million citizens and most of the Western hemisphere, the continued emphasis on French (1.25 million) and German (395,000) are more questionable, particularly when Chinese is the third most commonly spoken language at home in the United States and French and German are not even in the top ten. In essence, the emphasis on French and German education is not a reflection of domestic language needs so much as an artifact of a persistent Euro-centrism.
While I personally enjoyed studying French, Latin, and German language and culture in high school, I believe that the funding priorities of the state ought to help effect a shift away from Euro-centrism in an age when Asian powers and economies are ascendant. Of course, a shift away from the current educational priorities at the secondary level will cost billions of dollars in investment. But in a country with 2.5 million Chinese speakers and 531,000 Hindi speakers and 455,000 Japanese speakers, a shift in policy to promote Asian language acquisition would build rather than erode a reasonable base of linguistic diversity.