Languages Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Response to the 2011 Research Centre for Languages and Cultures RCLC Symposium

Article excerpt

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Context

The Research Centre for Languages and Cultures (RCLC) at the University of South Australia hosts an annual symposium on current issues related to languages and language education. Since 2008, the symposium program has explored the topics of languages in Australian education, applied linguistics in Australia, and linguistic and cultural diversity issues for Australia, drawing on Indian subcontinental and African examples. The linguistic and cultural diversity theme was extended in the 2011 symposium, with the area of interest shifting to Australia's northern neighbours. Titled 'Shifting sands: perspectives on the changing face of languages education in the Asia-Pacific region', the symposium aimed to explore the role of languages in education in the region, in particular addressing the role of English in Asian nations' educational systems and how it sits in relation to national and other languages, and the teaching of Asian languages in Australia. The hallmark of the RCLC symposia is that they intend to raise critical, current issues in the languages field for wider debate, include presenting cutting edge research and high profile speakers, and following up the symposia with dissemination of current thinking and ideas generated in the discussions through publications, further conference presentations and centre activities. The 2011 conference, convened by RCLC. member Nell Murray, involved speakers from the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, including members of the RCLC, in a two day program divided into the two subthemes: 'the relationship between English and Asian languages,' and 'dimensions of teaching and learning in the Asia-Pacific context'. A public forum held on the evening of the first day was dedicated to the topic 'languages in flux: the place of Chinese and English in the Asia-Pacific region'.

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Program content

Day 1: The relationship between English and Asian languages

Questions about how governments and educational institutions consider languages were the focus of three presentations. Amy Tsui, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of Teaching and Learning at the University of Hong Kong and, currently, Chair Professor of its Faculty of Education spoke about the tensions surrounding the use of English as a lingua franca on her university's campus. Like many higher education institutions in the region, and especially those with a history reflecting European colonial occupation, Hong Kong University uses English as the medium of instruction (Mol) and promotes an extensive international program with students attending from around the world, as well as from mainland China and Hong Kong. Tsui argued that the internationalisation of higher education in multilingual settings needs to be considered carefully by administrations, beyond simply choosing a lingua franca as the Mol and promoting notions of intercultural understanding through mission statements. Findings from an on campus study of students from different cohorts (international students, from a variety of nations, who need to use English as the only common language; mainland China students whose first language is usually Putonghua, which is more commonly known as Mandarin, but many of whom understand Cantonese, and local Hong Kong students whose first language is usually Cantonese, but who all understand Putonghua) indicated that tensions between these groups, and perceptions about inclusion and exclusion related to language choice in social and student activities interactions suggest that, on campus and in the life of the university, segregation rather than integration of students often occurs and that, paradoxically, intercultural intolerance was a real possibility if the complex interrelationships of students and their languages and cultural identifications were not considered at both policy and implementation levels within the university. …