Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett said in a recent interview that because English has already become the international business language and the world is becoming increasingly Western, he rejects the call for urgent investment to reverse the decline of Indonesian studies and other Asian languages in schools and universities in Australia, as made by the University of Melbourne’s Professor Tim Lindsey.
If this was what he really said (and was not taken out of context), Colin Barnett represents the outdated view belonging to a generation who should no longer exist in Australia. This view is ignorant, ill-informed and dangerous to the future of Australia in its standing with its closest neighbors. This is the core of the problem, which we all know but some refuse to recognize, let alone deal with.
Many younger Australians are doing much better and are realizing that economic, political and cultural intelligence is best obtained through language.
The kind of “language” that Premier Barnett is talking about is not a smart move in a business sense. Yes, in those emerging economic “Asian tigers” there are a host of mostly young, middle-class people who happily embrace English. But guess what? English is just one of the languages they speak. Communicating with them in their own language opens up a new channel, where there is scope for expressing empathy and appreciation. Failing to understand this means that Australia is and will continue to miss the boat – in a big way.
Premier Barnett is sending the wrong message to the Australian community and it is a step back from all the good things that organizations such as DFAT, ACICIS (Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies), AIYA (Australian Indonesia Youth Association), AII (Australia-Indonesia Institute) and NAILA (National Australia Indonesia Language Awards) have been doing in supporting young Australians to gain cultural knowledge and language proficiency through many forms of activity in both Australia and Indonesia.
Imagine this: you are an Australian who wants to do business in Indonesia and you are convinced that everyone there speaks English, so you go there and try to “sell” your product. You negotiate and finally the deal is done. But in their eyes (your biggest market) you are not just a monolingual business person – you may even be seen as an arrogant and intolerant type of “salesman.” How far will you get with your future business with that kind of attitude?
We often talk about how different Australians and Indonesians are in dealing with business. They say that Australia sees the transaction as a purely business relation. Indonesians, on the other hand, tend to start by building up a personal connection before embarking on the business relationship. If this is the case, you limit yourself and reinforce the stereotype that all you care about is making money, not the person you are dealing with.
It is the English monolingual mentality which needs to be challenged and changed. Coming from a top person in charge of the government in one of the largest states in Australia, Premier Barnett’s idea is very disappointing indeed. Like it or not, a politician has a responsibility, and as someone in a leadership position he first must act like a leader for the community. This backward-looking attitude is the kind of leadership that Australia cannot afford to have.
Yacinta Kurniasih teaches Indonesian studies at the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University in Melbourne.