The federal government announced an initiative last weekend to get all schoolkids to learn an Asian language.
While laudable I suspect it won’t work. Chris Rau has an excellent piece in this morning’s SMH explaining one set of reasons.
I’ve got another set of reasons. Learning Russian taught me that to learn a language is to learn a culture, the names of shops, how other people’s power bills work and the rest. Simple things like sour cream coming in green top bottles is something you need to know to interpret ‘he had a smile like a half open green topped bottle at the back of the fridge’.
What the collapse of the Soviet Union taught me is that language is evolving and transitory. Brands changed, new loan words arrived for example profakapit’ – to fail to deliver a project – and suddenly while Dostoyevski remained Dostoyevski and Tolstoi Tolstoi, newspaper and magazines became incomprehensible.
I have this fear that on our planned trans siberian trip that at best I’ll sound like an anachronism from the last century, or at worst find myself incapable of organising a taxi.
And this is the point. Learning a language, and being able to use it requires continual engagement. Yes, if you learn the basics in school you’ll probably be able to muddle through getting a taxi, a hotel room or a meal, sometimes with hilarious consequences for example the time Laos where the staff in a restaurant in Vientiane mistook our accents and decided we must be Russian and gave us the Russian rather than English menus.
You won’t be able to do more than that. If you get good you can probably understand the instructions about how to put together a set of valves. You won’t be able to go out for a drink with people, talk about soccer or anything else.
So learning Asian languages will give a generation a basic familiarity with the sound of a language and maybe better able to help visitors or ask where the toilet is. Useful, but it won’t deliver a generation of upskilled literate managers