Over the past two centuries, the Aussies have given the English language an idiosyncratic twang. Now they are ready to put their stamp on an array of Asian languages like Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian, and Japanese.
Why just Asian languages? Well, the Australians think that their future prosperity depends to a great extent on Asia’s economic rise, and importantly, they must learn major Asian languages. In October 2012, Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, unveiled an ambitious long-term policy document titled “Australia in the Asian Century.” Among other things, the policy document elaborates on Asia’s probable economic trajectory into the 21st century, and what that means for Australia.
The Australians, of course, are unequivocally bullish about Asia’s prospects going forward. “Whatever else this century brings, it will bring Asia’s leadership. This is not just unstoppable, it is gathering pace,” Ms. Gillard hailed. However, the way the Australians plan to ride Asia’s growth tide is perhaps a bit novel. Indeed, the Asia policy measure has the usual trust-boosting initiatives like increasing the number of Australian diplomats to Asia and offering ‘thousands of scholarships’ to Asian students. But the central theme of the policy paper is ‘Asian literacy,’ as Ms. Gillard calls it.
The focus of the plan revolves around giving Australian students in state-funded schools ‘priority’’ access to study prominent Asian languages like Mandarin, Hindi, and Japanese. The idea is to link each Australian school with an Asian partner school for online language classes by 2025.
The project could have huge ramifications for Australia.
For instance, Australia estimates Asia’s middle class will increase by nearly 2.5 billion over the next two decades, accounting for roughly around 60% of global middle-class consumption. Already, China and Japan have replaced the U.S. as Australia’s largest trading partners. In the past decade alone, China’s appetite for resources such as iron and coal has created an enormous mining boom in Australia, generating tens of thousands of jobs. Trade with Asia now contributes to almost 25% of Australia’s economy, up from a negligible amount three decades ago.
But for all the growth in trade between Australia and Asia, Australia until now has remained predominantly a commodity-supplier to Asian powerhouses. For instance, metals and minerals alone have accounted for nearly 70% of Australia’s exports to China. Australia wants to change this scenario. By 2025, Australia wants its trade with Asia to not only rise to nearly 33%, but also to come from premier products. Ms. Gillard put it more succinctly calling for brands like Grange, one of Australia’s expensive wines, to become the torch bearer of Australian products and in essence, “carry the (Australian) flag.”
To create a thriving trade atmosphere with Asia Australians think a proficiency in Asian languages is a must. The current linguistic diversity, or rather the lack of it, lends support to Australia’s ‘Asian literacy’ policy. Currently, 76.8% of Australians speak English at home. Mandarin, the most common Asian language spoken in Australia after English accounts for just a paltry 1.6% of the total according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Key business and industry associations have welcomed the government’s language plan. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Employment urged Australian states and territories to back Ms. Gillard on the massive project. Many Asian countries like Indonesia too have warmly endorsed the move.
What’s more, the country is on its way to creating a huge internet infrastructure that will likely help to accelerate the ‘Asian literacy’ program. The country’s $40 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) project, which aims to connect nearly 93% of Australian homes with broadband internet, will make it easy for Australian schools to connect with their Asian counterparts.
In all, Australia is betting heavily on what it calls the ‘Asian century.’ Currently, with an average real income of nearly $63,000 per person, Australia ranks 13th in the world. Australia expects Asia’s growth to push it within reach of the 10th place slot by 2025, giving its citizens an average real income of $75,000.
In the meantime, Hindi teachers in India and Mandarin teachers in China, be on alert. You might soon get a call for a job opportunity from Sydney or Melbourne.
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