During a recent speech, Labor MP Chris Bowen claimed that “out of the 25 million Australians who populate this great country… 130 people can speak Mandarin at a level good enough to do business, who aren’t of Chinese background”.
“Every child in Australia should be learning Mandarin”
The RMIT ABC Fact Check Unit investigated the claim and defined it an “educated guess,” explaining that the experts they consulted agreed it was likely to be “in the ballpark,” although there is no way to precisely calculate it.
However, founder of Chinese language school Mandarin Stars, Dawna Leung, said she wasn’t surprised by the figure.
“Every child in Australia should be learning Mandarin,” she told The PIE News.
“We need to inspire children earlier on. Right now, businesses like mine fill the gap, but we get no funding so Mandarin classes are only available to people who can afford it.”
Mandarin is most widely taught in the state of Victoria and is the fourth most popular foreign language nationally after Japanese, French and German.
“The Australian government is committed to supporting the teaching of languages other than English in Australian schools and to achieving a significant increase in student uptake in their senior secondary schooling within the next decade,” a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Education told The PIE.
According to the department, the number of non-Chinese born students enrolled in Chinese language courses (including both Mandarin and Cantonese) at Australian universities totalled just 381 in 2017, down from 447 in 2011 but slightly higher than 2016’s 343.
The lack of people taking Mandarin at university may also be down to a perception of a lack of opportunities for non-native speakers in fields requiring Mandarin proficiency.
“For people of Chinese descent who were born in Australia or emigrated at a young age, English is their first language,” said Ping Chen, chair professor in Chinese studies at the University of Queensland, in his 2017 paper Chinese Language Teaching in Australia.
However, Chen added, due to the influence of their family environment, many of them also have relatively strong competence in Chinese, with true bilingual, bicultural talent.
“In applying for the limited number of positions requiring proficiency in Chinese, applicants with Chinese backgrounds had a higher probability of success.
“As this kind of information trickles back to school campuses, it is obviously unhelpful in strengthening non-Chinese students’ enthusiasm and determination to learn Chinese,” he added.