Australia scraps Asian language program
CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- The Australian government has scrapped a $130 million (Aust. $240 million) 10-year funding program for teaching Asian languages in schools, four years before it was originally intended to end.
The program, introduced to Australian schools in 1996, was designed to promote the teaching of four key Asian languages: Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesia/Bahasa Malaysia and Korean.
Called the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy, the program's aims were to "support enhanced and expanded Asian languages and Asian studies provision through all school systems in order to improve Australia's capacity and preparedness to interact internationally, in particular, with key Asian countries."
Originally intended to run until 2006, Education Minister Brendan Nelson said on Thursday evening the language funding would be ending this year.
The decision has been roundly criticized in academic and opposition circles as being short-sighted and sending the wrong message to Australia's Asia-Pacific neighbors.
Chief executive of Language Australia, Professor Joe Lo Bianco, told CNN Friday the decision was very regrettable and "did not send a good signal" from Australia to the region.
He said the good work that had been achieved so far could be unraveled by the government's lack of an integrated language-learning policy.
The real significance of the decision was a cultural one, Lo Bianco said.
Nothing could equal the power of learning a language in helping understand other people's cultural perspective, he said.
A spokesman for Minister Nelson told CNN the decision to cut the program by 2002 had been made in 1999.
"It was never meant as an ongoing program. It was designed as a self-sustaining strategy which would run itself after the booster funding ended," he said.
The spokesman said a number of reviews of the strategy had suggested that it be phased out.
The row over the decision comes just days after Prime Minister John Howard hosted Japanese leader Junichiro Koizumi in Canberra and said Australia needed to be "ambitious about the future of the relationship" with Japan.
Japanese is by far the most commonly taught Asian language in Australian schools, followed by Indonesian and Mandarin.
A review of Asian studies in Australian schools released this year shows 73.5 percent of schools taught at least one Asian language.
Opposition Labor party spokesman on foreign affairs Kevin Rudd said the increased effort in teaching Asian languages "will largely be destroyed through Minister Nelson's decision to axe the program for the next four years".
"This is an exercise in national vandalism," he said.
Professor Lo Bianco said that Australia had a relatively good record on teaching Asian languages compared with other countries in the region.
For example, more Chinese was taught in Australian schools than in Japanese schools.
But because Australia is a small and isolated country in the region, a greater effort was required to understand other cultures if regional relationships are to flourish in the future.
Professor Stephen FitzGerald, from the Asia-Australia Institute told SBS Television Thursday that Australia was "denying itself one of the most important tools" by which it can become part of what is going on in Asia.
He said the withdrawal of funding meant many schools would now simply stop teaching Asian languages.
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