Australia hones in on foreign languages

An Australian flag.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal:The rest of the world might be talking about double-dip recessions, but Down Under there's barely been a single dip. Australia's been an economic bright spot the past couple of years. That's thanks mostly to commodities -- booming exports of iron ore, gold, and uranium to places like China. Australia's future is closely tied to China and the rest of Asia, but its choice of languages has been firmly rooted in its colonial past. So now in Australia there's a plan to teach kids how to talk with their neighbors.

Stuart Cohen reports.


Teacher: OK, which letters make the "aaayeee" sound? Tyber?

Tyber: Is it A I?

Teacher: Bagus sekali! Pintar ya!

Stuart Cohen: Scott's Head Public School is a tiny elementary school with just 63 students in a seaside village in northern New South Wales. It's hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, but this isolated town is right in the middle of Australia's plans to stay competitive in the coming decades.

Teacher, speaking Indonesian: Apakah harimau makan pisang?

Students: Tidak.

Scott's Head School is one of just four recently chosen by the New South Wales government, as part of a test program, to become fully bilingual in an Asian language. Here, it's Indonesian. The other three schools are in Sydney. They're learning to speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean. It's part of a broader national plan to build stronger ties with Australia's four most economically important neighbors.

Angie Evans: I'm very, very convinced that, you know, we are an Asian country.

Angie Evans is the Scott's Head principal. She started teaching Indonesian six years ago after being offered help from a bilingual parent of one of her students. She says it's all about preparing her kids for the country's growing reliance on Asia.

Evans: The students will be obviously having jobs mixing with all these different nationalities, where they need to be able to converse and communicate with each other. And we have a long way to go in educating the Australian public about Asian countries.

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, more than half of Australia's exports last year went to north Asian countries like Japan and China, while exports to the U.S. and the entire European Union accounted for barely over 15 percent.

Kathe Kirby: Traditionally, Australia has seen itself as an outpost of Europe. That's really changed now. Our part of the world is here. We are reliant for our future prosperity on the countries of the Asian region.

Kathe Kirby is executive director of the Asialink Center, which promotes business ties between Australia and the rest of Asia. She says business leaders are starting to realize the country is risking its home-court advantage by neglecting Asian language and cultural studies.

Kirby: We managed to bring together every peak industry group in this country -- plus 44 of Australia's top companies -- who came together and signed off on a statement making the point that they require an Asia-ready workforce, and they need the Australian schooling system to deliver that.

Kirby's work has be paid off. Australia is in the midst of rolling out its first national school curriculum, and Asian studies feature prominently. And it hasn't hurt that the country's former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was an advocate of the idea, himself a fluent Mandarin speaker as a former diplomat in Beijing.

Sound of Indonesian "ABC" song on a computer game

At Scott's Head School, some of the more eager students put in extra time playing Indonesian games in the school's computer lab. But it's not all fun and games for many of the students. Despite being just 12 years old, year six student Thomas Lynch is looking ahead to his future.

Thomas Lynch: To have a basic understanding of Indonesian will probably help me with my, if I ever get into business dealing with Indonesians.

But then again, all work and no play makes life a bit dull.

Lynch: Because I'm a surfer, when I travel to Indonesia, I'll be able to speak Indonesian and find out all the good spots to surf.

That enthusiasm is music to the ears of many in Australia's business community.

Students repeating Indonesian words said by teacher

In Sydney, I'm Stuart Cohen for Marketplace.

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