Australia

Australia 'missing out' as students continue to shun learning Chinese

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Only a handful of students are choosing to study Chinese through high school, prompting both concern and confusion from experts.

More than 1.2 million Australians are of Chinese ancestry and the country is our largest trading partner, but very few young people are choosing to study the language. 

The Australia-China Relations Institute held a discussion at the University of Technology Sydney this week on why school enrollments in the language continue to be "persistently low" - especially among non-Chinese background students.

Director of the Institute and former NSW Premier Bob Carr told the audience one "challenging statistic" was only 380 non-Chinese background students nationally are studying Chinese through high school.

Bob Carr talks to SBS News.
Bob Carr talks to SBS News.
SBS News.

"That's a worry when you consider China buys one-third of our exports. We need to understand this country ... We need to have our own level of expertise on China," he said on Monday.

This number rises to around 4000 when taking in all students.

Mr Carr told SBS News "it's as if Australia is lazily depending on Chinese migrant families to yield up their sons and daughters to be our reservoir of Chinese speakers".

"We've got to get more people from non-Chinese backgrounds studying Chinese ... I'm certain we're losing a great deal by not having that capacity more widely in the Australian population."

He suggested education reform could be needed, including "a bigger reward for students who put the effort into learning a difficult Asian language ... Maybe we should give them the credit they get for taking two subjects?"

It was a point echoed by John Meng, the secretary of the Chinese Language Teachers Association NSW.

"We need incentives for studying such a difficult language," he told SBS News.

"What happens in China matters, and increasingly so ... By building Chinese language capacity we will improve and increase the understanding of the people in these two countries".

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Low numbers 

According to a 2016 report by Australia-China Relations Institute, the number of students learning Chinese in Australian schools was 172,832, or 4.7 per cent of total school student numbers.

But the report found that more than half of students who begin Chinese in primary school do not continue it in secondary school, if they have a choice to opt out.

And the number of students taking Chinese up to year 12 was very low.

"By Year 12 only 4,149 [2.4 percent of the Chinese learners, 0.1 percent of the total student cohort] are still studying Chinese," the report read.

"There is no consensus on the preeminent importance of developing Chinese competence across the country and no national project to assist this development."

Participants at Monday's event said there had been no major uptick in numbers since the 2016 report.

'Save someone's life'

But while there was little optimism around the numbers on Monday, students and teachers remained positive.

Fifteen-year-old Zac Mcleod of Rouse Hill High School said he chose to study Chinese as, "I want to become a paramedic in the future and eliminating the language barrier ... potentially could save someone's life when they're injured".

Zac Mcleod of Rouse Hill High School.
Zac Mcleod of Rouse Hill High School.
SBS News

While teacher at Rouse Hill High School Kate Wang said more and more students like Zac were not choosing Chinese for "the more typical reasons" such as business or political opportunities.

"My students talk about being paramedics, being nurses, being in cyber security in Australia ... Making the community here cohesive and strong and safe," she said.

"It's such a wonderful language to be part of, yet for some reason the difficulty of it stops so many people from wanting to give it a go."

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