Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:55 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:55 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: No incentive to be a Asia linguist

This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

3 November 2011 16:32

This post is part of the Asian languages in Australia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ryan writes:

Firstly, I'd like to congratulate Mr Carr for his post, and for highlighting the absence of demand for language learners. But I'd like to perhaps challenge him on his assertion that, if you 'build demand for cultural and social engagement and the language, business and security links will follow.' 

No matter how much you admire the history, culture or literature of a country, it is hard to argue to someone that they should learn a language when employers don't value it. Mr Miller seems to be discussing more entry-level employment, but I think that his point is apposite at the mid and high levels as well. 

Indeed, a cursory glance at the Lowy Institute's own webpage appears to support Mr Miller's claim that employers themselves seemed to have decided that they don't need Asian language skills — of what appear to be 22 full-time staff, 1 is fluent in an Asian language. And this is not to pick on Lowy — I'd bet that this is much, much better than most of our strategic and defence institutions. I don't even want to think about what the numbers are for our major banks, mining companies or law/services firms.

Why does this happen? Mainly, because we don't preference Asian language skills.

A glance at any public service job advert shows the value of ubiquitous, if nebulous, 'strategic' skills. And we double down on this with our focus on 'generalism'. But learning an Asian language requires one to specialise. It requires time in-country. Learning to be literate in Asia requires, usually, specialising in Asia — and this takes time, usually time that people don't have.

It's much easier to become an excellent economist, strategist or academic in general without being Asia literate than it is to try and keep up with your peers while spending 3 hours a night improving one's Japanese honorifics. Young people often have to choose, and they usually conclude that time in-country is less valuable than time in departments/internships/meetings. 

I say this not to start an epistemological debate about the relative value of different types of knowledge. Rather, I say it to make the point that people respond to role models and incentives, and there's little incentive in being known as a specialist with cultural and social engagement skills. 

So, as Martin astutely notes, the very linguists we say we need are 'coaxed away by better money and easier promotion opportunities in other "less glamorous" departments.' Underlining this phenomenon is a perception that specialism and cultural and social engagement won't get you promoted. Contrary to Mr Carr's remarks, I'm not sure that there's any amount of money that will solve this. 

This needs to be addressed head on. More cultural and social engagement may make you more likely to mention Lu Xun as you deal with BaoSteel executives, but it's unlikely to make you more employable. And this is what worries me: pleading that we need 'more engagement' is an example of exactly what Mr Carr appears to be railing against. It's wanting to do something rather than nothing but not actually addressing the problem.

Instead, as Mr Miller argues, we need to have a serious conversation. It's a matter for senior management in the public and private sectors to decide whether speaking an Asian language is valuable enough to warrant investment or a change in hiring criteria. The issue is not a shortage of ideas.

There are a number of examples of how this could work — mandating foreign language skills for senior positions in the strategic/foreign policy firmament, for example. I'd argue that Mr Rudd's recent decision to choose fluent speakers to be ambassadors to Beijing, Tokyo and Jakarta will do more for boosting Asian language demand than any new language training centre or history program. 

And more examples are easy to think of: a concentrated movement by managers to make clear that they regard multilingual work as part of being 'strategic' (or insert one's favourite buzzword here). Or a competitive program that trained people in a foreign language either here or abroad (similar to the Wilson Scholarships offered by the ANU in conjunction with the public sector).

These things would all cost money, be confronting (particularly given how few of our leaders speak other languages) and take talented people offline. They'd also mean that we would be preferencing specific skill sets instead of nebulous strategic thinkers. But these sorts of shifts in incentives are what is necessary to boost demand — not more cultural and social engagement. The question is whether this is what we want. And this, as Mr Miller rightly notes, is the difficult conversation we need to have.

Photo by Flickr user thinkglobalschool.