The language of the future

‘We have to stop learning French and start learning Mandarin’. Which politician said that?

The answer is: all of them, in the last ten or fifteen years.

The most recent politician to make the argument is David Cameron while on a visit to the Middle Kingdom, but Julia Gillard got in on the act a couple of years back, promising that every Australian child would learn an Asian language. That episode, forgotten immediately, reminded some of us of the cry to embrace Asia in the Hawke years, when it was decreed that, yes, every Australian student would learn an Asian language.

‘Brazil is the country of the future’, Clemenceau remarked, ‘and it always will be’. Mandarin is the language of the future, likewise.

The reasons why it – or, earlier, Japanese – are suggested for mass Western learning vary, as do the reasons why the proposed language learning will never happen. But there is one common explanation for such foolishness – an instrumentalist assumption that learning a language is little more than downloading it; that mastery of a tongue has nothing to do with intent, need or desire.

Indeed, it’s quite fascinating how the mania for language-learning among politicians becomes more pronounced, the further they draw the education system away from the methods that would make such a thing possible. Politicians – most of whom are monolingual, having been too busy in student politics to do the hard yards of language acquisitions – look at the global uptake of English and urge everyone else to return the favour. The presumption ignores the main motivation that prompts hundreds of millions everywhere to master English – that is, it is pretty bloody essential to have if you want to get out of whatever other context you’re in and make a life for yourself in the world, whether as an MBA or a Pashtun refugee. This was the point of the great pedagogue Paulo Freire, who pointed out that language is a praxis for acting in the world, and when you teach, for example the illiterate, to write the things they most want to express, then the uptake rate is phenomenal. Language is a self-replicating machine, something that speaks us, rather than vice versa. Every kid learning English above a cafe in Warsaw, Dakar or Shenzen can feel each newly mastered sentence getting them closer to the wide world.

For native English speakers the reverse is the case. You have a familial, emotional or intellectual attraction to a language you want to learn – and if you don’t, mastery entails the devotion of thousands of hours to a baroque and useless pastime.

Furthermore, the more that English becomes Globish, the less chance there is to use another language in a real context. Tourism would be the obvious context for most people, yet some English has now become standard issue for every hotel receptionist, waiter and tour guide, especially in places like China. With diminished circumstances in which mastery is necessary, the compulsion evaporates.

Indeed for different reasons, mass learning of Asian languages are a dumb idea for both Britons and Australians. For Britons, there is a pool of other languages on their doorstep, as part of the union of which they are now a member. The obvious point for them would be to institute a genuine second language program, starting in primary school – one that involves multiple trips abroad, so that kids load most of the language on while they are very young, essentially learning it into conjunction with English. That would not only make language acquisition a quasi-automatic process, but it would make the focused learning of other languages easier, since the principle of arbitrariness (that is, that there is no ‘natural’ way to slice up the world with words) would be established. Most Finnish kids leave high-school quadrilingual, having done Finnish, Swedish, English and then an optional fourth tongue. Each gets easier they say, the show-offs.

For Australians, there is no compelling reason for mass mastery of a second language. We are an island-continent-nation; you could go your whole life without needing another language. Were we to force adolescents to bumble throgh four years of Mandarin/Japanese/Bahasa, what would be the point? They would learn at a fraction of the pace that anyone truly committed would learn, and most would be permanently turned off the real joys of language learning. The non-European vocabularies and the ideographic writing systems of the northern languages make competence pretty unlikely with less than six years instruction. The small number who progressed to competence would be dwarfed by the mass of those for whom vocab and grammar would fall apart as soon as they left school. Far better to teach everyone Spanish (which English speakers can master in two years, easily), or encourage non-Anglo-Celtic second or third generation kids to learn the family language to full competence, or teach Latin and/or Old English so that kids write better English – or some combination of those strategies.

On top of that, you could then put a secondary Asian language and culture stream of subjects for kids who were bicultural by origin, or for anyone who had shown aptitude and interest in language learning. Were that tied together with subsidised university programmes in Asian languages – just as the British empire was smart enough to create great oriental language schools at Oxbridge – then we would get what we need: tens of thousands of Australians who could speak Mandarin/Japanese/Bahasa/Vietnamese well, and are drawn to a real encounter with the culture and people, not hundreds of thousands who can remember the characters for ‘will fuck for donuts’ (‘hey, dude, here’s what you should get for your tattoo: it’s like a spiritual motto’) and make fools of themselves when drunk in restaurants (‘I’ll have the piss kitten cucumber – did i get the tones right? Yes? Wonderful. OK, make that two piss kitten cucumbers with a side order of tractor mucus’).

The blasé insincerity by which politicians urge these never-to-be-enacted schemes is a product of their own formation. Learning non-essential languages is a measure of a non-strategic interest in the world, a delight in its particularity – and we are a long way from people like Marx and Engels, who learnt Russian so they could read about the narodniks, or IF Stone, who mastered ancient Greek in his retirement, or even sodding Enoch Powell, who learnt Portuguese on a bet. Politicians’ attitude to language is at one with their attitude to education – that it should have any non-instrumental content leached out of it. It’s one reason why there is such fawning over Noel Pearson’s adoption of one-dimensional forms of process-learning, in which teachers become little more than robots enacting manuals. There is no evidence that Pearson’s approach has caused Cape York’s education system to achieve any greatly improved results, yet fawning pollies of both parties are already angling to generalise the system throughout Australian education.

The same goes for language learning, the spurious claims for which, have become a measure of the gap between machine politics and the real complexities of global social life. Luckily of course, their project will never happen: there is disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent. Mandarin is the language of the future and it always will be.



Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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