How well do you understand Asia? This is one of the very first questions I asked my students in the first international business lecture. Only a few of them agreed that they are familiar with Asian culture and languages. This issue has been reported in major media as “an alarming 22 per cent drop between 2000 and 2008 in the number of Australian students studying Chinese, Indonesia, Japanese and Korean from kindergarten to Year 12”. According to the Asia Education Foundation, this was “far worse than feared.” To confirm this point, Jenny McGregor, the Chief Executive of Asia Link at the University of Melbourne, referred to a 2009 study that reported only 2 per cent of Australian year 12 history student chose to study history with Asian content, while 65 per cent chose Germany and 19 per cent Russia. She also confirmed that only 250 non-Chinese background students in Australia choose to study Mandarin and there is potential that there would be no one studying Indonesian in year 12 within eight years. Clearly, Asian languages and history are not the top choices among Australian students.
A number of academic studies published in key academic journals such as Journal of International Business Studies and Asia Pacific Journal of Management have confirmed that language and cultural competencies contribute significantly to success in business relationship, creative thinking in business and partnership. We, however, can witness the similar problem in the world of international business in Australia. The Australian Industry group surveyed 380 business organizations and found that most Australian business organisations lack the key linguistic and cultural skills to advance their business with potential Asian partners. For instance, most CEOs are unable to comprehend Asian language or had minimal experience in the region. This is contrast with the fact that more than half of the surveyed CEOs were planning to expand to Asia in the future. This study clearly highlights a key skills deficit facing Australia, Asian literacy.
Having worked with young Australians in the classroom, I have witnessed an obvious separation among international students, mostly from Asia, and local students. This is an on-going challenge for educators working in Australian higher education institutions. One may assume that linguistic and psychic distances impede the interaction among students from diverse backgrounds. The lack of preparation to ‘accept’ physical and psychological differences at younger age may also contribute to this issue. The un-cool stereotype of people from Asia has long been reflected in our language. We must admit that terms such as ‘Asian Geek’ or ‘Wing nut’ may indirectly stop our younger generations to expose themselves to their Asian friends in the classroom.
Language is the key to understand foreign culture. Understanding foreign culture is the key to long-term development among nations. Australia has been actively playing the role of economic and social contributor in the region. We are very keen to unite with our neighbor in South East Asia. However, we are not preparing our younger generation for this coming challenge. The Association of South East Asian Nations or ASEAN is moving towards the goal to become ASEAN economic community by 2020. Language will play an important role in the process of economic and political transformation. This change will affect Australian political, social and economic structure. Asian literacy is important and our education and training system must work together to prepare young Australians to be ready for this coming future.