The choice of many students of Chinese background to study Chinese as a basic second language appears to be driving others away from studying it.
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
As Australia talks of becoming a more multilingual society, especially in connection with Asia, the facts on the ground don't always match up.
And that contradiction's beginning to show up particularly at the Year 12 exam level, and particularly concerning one language -- Chinese.
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Many students of Chinese background choose to study the language as a basic second language, regardless whether they could take on a higher level.
And that appears to be driving others away from studying it.
When a tearful Bob Hawke promised 42,000 Chinese students they could stay in Australia forever in the days after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he never imagined this.
Almost a quarter of a century later, the children of the so-called Children of the Revolution are growing up and posing an unusual dilemma for the country's education leaders.
China has undergone major development over those years and become a leading world power - maybe even the dominant regional power.
China and Australia will need to communicate.
Yet fewer and fewer students from non-Chinese backgrounds are willing to study Chinese in Year 12, fearing those from Chinese backgrounds will dominate the marks.
The director of the Chinese Teacher Training Centre at the University of Melbourne, Jane Orton, says the issue over Chinese as a Second Language has become a big one.
"It's been a contentious problem for 30 years but it's become critical in the last five years because (of) the number of home speakers born here, or, you know, (who have) been here since infancy, who are highly proficient -- essentially, first-language speakers of Chinese, many of whom have done 10 years of Saturday-school literacy development as well. But they get in under the wire and qualify as second-language learners because of the residency. And where there used to be 300 to 200, or 300 to a hundred, there are now, in Victoria at least, something like 820 of those speakers to only about 150 actual, real classroom learners. So it's massive. And the difference in proficiency is huge."
Dr Orton says the problem is national, but Victoria offers a telling example of the dilemma and the search for solutions.
The state's Curriculum and Assessment Authority has put out a set of six potential ways to deal with the issue after consulting with school principals, academics and students.
Perhaps the most controversial idea for discussion would bar students who speak Mandarin at home from studying basic Chinese as a second language for Year 12 exams.
The proposal would prevent a student from studying in the category called Chinese Second Language under any of three conditions.
That is, if the student had a year of formal education in China, lived there for three of the past ten years or regularly uses the language for sustained communication outside class.
Dr Orton says something needs to be done to convince Year 12 students of non-Chinese background they can pursue the language without damaging their university chances.
"If you're accepted into a Year 12 examination course, at least have a fair chance that, if you work hard, you've got a chance of doing well. Now that's not the case. It is absolutely not the case. Now there's something very wrong internally with that. I think there are ethical issues there. And then for the wider term, well, you know, if the only people who speak Chinese are of Chinese origin, then we're not really getting very far with good old Asianisation. I think we need to be able to bring our Anglophone heritage to the discussions and so on, not always relying on people who are of ethnic Chinese heritage to do the work for us."
Other ideas from the Curriculum and Assessment Authority include a big bilingual bonus in university-admission points for certain competence in both English and Mandarin.
That would be an Australian first.
And there are ideas about creating a Chinese course for beginners or a new subject that studies Chinese culture and society and conversational Chinese.
New South Wales is looking for answers, too, after the number of Higher School Certificate students studying Chinese fell by more than one-quarter from 2010 to 2012.
Figures released just recently show a further five per cent drop this year.
One response has been to create a Chinese Heritage course two years ago for Chinese-background students not up to the course called Chinese Background Speakers.
Student Suki Chen, from Strathfield Girls High School in Sydney, says she thinks that is the answer.
"The Heritage course, between the Chinese Beginner and the Chinese Background course, it's sort of like balancing both. So the students who study in the Chinese Beginner course, they might feel (it's not) fair because the girls who have a little bit of Chinese -- like they can speak (some) Chinese but they can't read any Chinese or they can't understand any Chinese -- they can go to the Heritage course. (Otherwise, the Beginners) might feel like, 'Oh, they can speak Chinese, but I can't. I don't know any Chinese.' So they don't have to feel like, 'Why are they in the same class with us? It's not fair.'"
The same argument, of course, could be made in other languages if the question of the overall numbers for Chinese is ignored.
But a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of New England, Liz Ellis, says competing in Chinese is not the same for many Australian students as European languages.
She says some European languages, for example, that are closer in structure and general orientation to English can present less of an obstacle than Chinese.
"Orally, I don't think it's much more difficult than other languages, but certainly the writing takes a lot longer to develop. And because there's a greater language distance between Chinese and English than there is between, say, German and English, or Spanish and English, in that sense, it can be considered more difficult, because you don't encounter words that are the same, for example. Whereas, if you're learning French, there's a whole pile of words that you can understand because they look like English when they're written down. Same with Spanish."
The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority paper suggests an inherent difficulty with any new guidelines would be making sure students entered the appropriate classes.
The paper says the need to comply with a range of privacy and anti-discrimination legislation is also a critical factor to consider.
And Dr Ellis questions whether there is actually anything wrong with, say, a Chinese-background student taking a lower course.
"Wouldn't the same be true in any other subject? I mean, you might be very good at history, but, because you want to focus on other subjects, you might then drop down to Level 2 in history, or whatever they call it these days, to have any easy run, because you know that you can get a good mark, so that you can concentrate on maths, which you're not so good at, or something like that. Why would that be different for language? I don't think it should be seen as cheating if somebody wanted to take a lower level because it was easier for them. I did that with maths in my own HSC."
But Dr Orton, at the University of Melbourne, has a different take on Chinese.
"I have talked to the Commissioner for Anti-Discrimination. I've talked to law professors on discrimination at the University of Melbourne. They all agree there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, 'This exam is for people who've learnt the language in a classroom.' Just as with dressage, you say, 'This is for two-year-old horses,' or, "This race is for the Under-12s.' You know, we have lots of examples where we actually draw lines with an arbitrary kind of regulation, because of the unfair advantage of age or size or whatever. Or, just how much longer you've been doing it."