Michiko Weinmann

Politicisation of teaching Chinese language in Australian classrooms today

In a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly embroiled in an atmosphere of China scepticism. Diplomatic tensions between Australia and China have arisen in the past largely due to political and trade disagreements, but the provision of Chinese language programs in Australian schools has also ignited controversy.

Australia’s education agendas for the 21st century have focused on supporting Australian school students to become future global citizens with the skills and capabilities to live, work and engage in the international community, particularly with Australia’s neighbours. Proficiency in an Asian language has been seen as a key skill to achieve this goal. However, while policy promotes the study of Chinese as a ‘language for the future’, such motives are readily cast aside in times of diplomatic crisis when the ‘enigma’ of China and speakers of the Chinese language are seen as a threat.

The politicisation of Chinese language study in Australia promotes the idea that learning Chinese is useful to Australians for purely practical economic reasons, such as being able to conduct business or trade.  This has particular implications for Languages teaching and learning, as it reduces multilingualism and its associated benefits—intercultural competence, literacy, language awareness and critical thinking—to a strategic resource.

Within the broader Languages education debates in Australia, Chinese stands out because of its unique place in Australian society and education. After English, Chinese is the language most spoken at home, and is one of the most widely taught languages in Australian schools. However, students who are not from Chinese heritage backgrounds rarely achieve high proficiency; and Chinese is considered a ‘difficult’ language compared to European languages, which are linguistically closer to English. The perceived language advantage of Chinese-heritage students also has a demotivating effect.

Our research

In a recent study, we explored how debates in the media and conversations among language teachers reflect the contentions surrounding Chinese language learning and Australia’s multicultural identity. We examined a selection of Australian media articles on Chinese language education published between 2012 and 2017, and conducted interviews with teachers of Asian languages in 2015 and 2016. We found a strong discrepancy between advocacy for Chinese language instruction as key to Australia’s economic future, and media and public debates that portray Chinese as ‘too difficult and too foreign to learn’. Such debates also position learning Chinese as linked to the dissemination of Chinese government propaganda, and as undermining Australia’s Anglo-European and anglophone identity.

We identified four main themes:

  • Chinese is the ‘language of the future’ for Australians
  • Chinese taught in Confucius Classrooms in Australia is suspicious
  • Chinese culture and language are too foreign and difficult for Australians to master
  • Uneasiness or ambivalence in Australia towards teaching and learning Chinese

Chinese is the ‘language of the future’

Eleven of the twenty-three media articles selected for our study reflected the Asian Century discourse, which heralds China as the ‘rising’ economic and geopolitical power. Chinese education programs were often described as ‘cutting edge’: statements such as ‘bilingual first in schools’ and ‘preschool language program rolled out’ suggest that bilingual language programs are a new phenomenon, rather than a long-established tradition in Australia.

Several articles also seemed to suggest that language education was less about language learning than about technological innovation: students would be able to form ‘virtual relationships’ with ‘digital sister schools’ ‘with the help of an innovative program’. The notion of using technology to connect with ‘real’ Chinese people in mainland China reinforces the perception that the purpose of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’, outside Australia. This renders invisible the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own back yard’.

Chinese and Confucius Classrooms: The language of suspicion

An interesting if unsurprising finding—given the controversy of China’s investment in ‘cultural projection to the world’—was the significant number of articles critical of the role of Confucius Classrooms in Chinese language programs. Headings such as ‘Schools paid $10,000 to teach Chinese, and ‘China sends teachers to Palmerston’,  position China as the sole driver of such programs, despite the Australian government’s policy focus on developing language proficiency in Chinese. Statements in the same article, such as ‘the Territory will soon be speaking Chinese if the NT [Northern Territory] Government gets its way’ reveal an underlying hostility towards the arrival of ‘twenty Chinese teachers set to be calling the Northern Territory home’. In this way, Chinese language and culture are politicised as threats to Australian national identity—a view that is reinforced and manifested by a hierarchical view of languages. An Australian company manager, interviewed by the Gold Coast Bulletin (FIRST joband where are you now? 24/10/2016) comments:

The school curriculum is too crowded …. People often suggest learning Chinese. I don’t believe Chinese is essential as all Chinese students learn English … however, basic Chinese skills assist in business etiquette and overcoming the cultural barrier.

So, while language and cultural knowledge are useful skills, English-speaking Australians only need to acquire ‘survival Chinese’ in order to overcome cultural barriers. But on the other hand, Chinese speakers are assumed (and expected) to have a high level of communicative proficiency in English. Chinese may be the ‘language of the future’ and worthwhile engaging with—but not to the extent of attaining high linguistic proficiency and a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and society. This creates a cycle of ‘privilege and parochialism’ for the English-dominant speaker.

‘It’s too foreign’

Similar concerns were expressed by the Languages teachers we interviewed. ‘Pam’, Head of Languages and a teacher of Japanese at a Catholic secondary school in metropolitan Melbourne, comments on the ‘usefulness’ of studying Chinese:

I think […] that as a society we’ve always viewed Japanese with a sense of prestige. Kids like the animated cartoons, feel like there’s things they can really relate to. Now, Chinese hasn’t got that.

Although popular culture can support interest in language learning, it doesn’t occur as often as people believe. Pam’s comment that Chinese language lacks cultural aspects that Australian students can relate to suggests that China continues to be seen as too far removed from ‘Australian’ culture. ‘Daniel’, Head of Department and teacher of Chinese at an independent K–12 college in Melbourne, echoes this sentiment:

I mean it’s as basic as [Chinese] textbook layout. At the moment it doesn’t feel Western. It feels, just even opening the book, quality of the pages, fonts […] kids look at it and go, ‘This looks really foreign.’

According to Daniel, a student’s very first classroom encounter with Chinese can be deeply alienating. A resource as simple as a textbook can exemplify a perceived linguistic and cultural chasm between ‘East and West’.

Uneasiness or ambivalence in Australia towards teaching and learning Chinese

Both advocates and critics of Chinese language education in Australia draw on arguments around economic proximity and cultural distance that are difficult to reconcile. This uneasiness was reflected in stories of the everyday professional interactions involving languages teachers of both Australian and Chinese descent. Pam and Daniel discussed their involvement as Heads of Languages in staffing, recruitment and employment of Languages teachers:

For Chinese by far, we have too many native speakers, and they’re all teaching because they can speak the language. Our industry for Chinese is dominated by native speakers up to 99 per cent.

I feel like in the past, we’ve really just gone: ‘Well, you can speak the language, come and teach here.’ And it’s almost like: You don’t do that with English teachers. How did you just realise that that doesn’t work for other languages? (Daniel)

Daniel is commenting on the widespread assumption that teaching one’s first language is ‘easy’; as something that is ‘innate’, it is thought to require little effort or formal study. It is a ‘springboard’ for a teaching career in Australia, as demonstrated by the high proportion of native Chinese language teachers. Daniel suggests that his school had not questioned this assumption in the past; it had recruited Chinese language teachers mainly based on their ability to speak the language, a practice that changed when it was realised that teachers of other languages were not recruited in this way. However, a great deal of irony is apparent when such recruitment practices for Chinese versus English language teachers are considered, as many native English speakers are employed overseas today as English language teachers based mostly on their ability to speak English as a first language.

Our research reflects the well-documented themes in media and teacher discourses in Australia around representations of Chinese language education: utilitarian arguments for Chinese language learning, the exoticising of the cultural and linguistic ‘other’ and a deep-rooted ambivalence towards China and speakers of Chinese.

If the intention of policy is to position Chinese as the ‘language of the future’ and worthy of study, it requires progressive politics, policy and education systems to recognise that ‘while multilingualism is laudatory, the means by which one becomes multilingual also matter’. Language learning is valuable for a broad range of reasons, including the economic, political, societal, intercultural and interpersonal.

In light of the current Australia–China tensions, re-embracing relationships in the Asia- Pacific that move beyond binary Australia–Asia relationships of ‘us versus them’ could be crucial for stabilising the region. This will require a more critical engagement with Australia’s multicultural identity, and consideration of how our diversity could be reflected more comprehensively. It will also raise new questions about how Australia communicates with its Asian neighbours.

For those who want more – Neilsen, R. & Weinmann, M. (2019). Repositioning teacher identities: Beyond binaries of Self and Other. The Australian Educational Researcher.

ABC news Chinese, Indonesian language teachers get creative bringing Asia to regional Australia

Dr Michiko Weinmann is a senior lecturer in Languages Education, and Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL) at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has researched and published on multilingual education, Asia literacy, and teacher mobility. Michiko curates the Languages resources website: www.languageteacherhelpmate.com. Her forthcoming co-authored book (with Dr Rebecca Cairns, Deakin University) ‘Rethinking Asia-related Curriculum’ will be published by Routledge in 2021. Michiko is on Twitter at @MichikoWeinmann

Dr Rod Neilsen is a senior lecturer in TESOL at Deakin University, Melbourne. He has worked as an English teacher and teacher educator on five continents. He has conducted research into pre-service and in-service teacher mobility and multilingual approaches to language learning. Rod is the Chief Editor of the Australian journal, TESOL in Context.

Sophia Slavich is a Chinese and EAL/D language teacher with experience in primary, secondary and tertiary levels. She conducted research in language education policy as part of her Masters of Teaching degree at Deakin University, Melbourne. Sophia is an advocate for linguistic diversity and the worldviews it represents. She currently teaches Chinese at Stawell Primary School, Victoria and works as an instructional coach for beginning teachers with the Teach for Australia program.

We also have a book chapter to be published in 2021 -Weinmann, M., Slavich, S. & Neilsen R. (forthcoming 2021). ‘Multiculturalism and the “broken” discourses of Chinese language education’, In: Halse, C. & Kennedy, K. (eds.). The future of multiculturalism in turbulent times. Asia-Europe Education Dialogue series, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

This is what we need to do to boost languages learning in Australian schools

Our rich multicultural nation maintains a frustratingly monolingual mindset. Discussions about Languages education in Australia typically reiterate the debate between the personal and national rewards of multilingualism versus Languages as an exotic extra in the ‘crowded curriculum’.

Focusing on the economic benefits of Languages, however, is clearly not cutting through in terms of the prioritisation and funding of Language learning and student participation in Languages in Australia, so how do we move the debate forward?

Let’s start with where we are, and why we are stranded here.

A policy vacuum

While the EU language education policy speaks ‘mother tongue plus two’, Australia currently does not have any national Languages policy. Its absence testifies silently to an English-speaking monolingual mindset that continues to undermine support for Languages education. Cue the new Australian Curriculum that serves as a default Languages policy: it speaks eloquently and very clearly about what Languages education should be and mandates Languages from F– 10. Ergo, Languages is a non-negotiable learning area, so further discussion about its optional character is well and truly obsolete.

And yet … this binding endorsement can be easily ‘overlooked’ in the vastness of the Australian Curriculum, so we call for a political and pedagogical commitment to a national Languages policy. It could address many concerns around Languages education currently coursing through the media and topical in public debate. To name just a few of these concerns:

  • Critically low senior-student participation rates in Languages
  • Insufficient time allocation for Languages in schools
  • Variation in Language education across the states
  • Insufficiently differentiated course modalities in Year 12
  • Languages inequality as evidenced in ‘priority’ vs. non-priority languages, ‘elite’ or ‘academic’ vs. ‘lower-status’ community languages
  • The possibility of replacing Languages with cultural studies or the ‘more universal language’ of coding.

Successive governments have a record of starting and abandoning inadequately funded and inappropriately staffed Languages programs. A national Languages policy would provide focus and a framework for developing Languages education beyond the next election.

Dropping the F-word

Senator Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training as we write, refers to modern languages as ‘foreign’ languages. Clunk! Use of the word ‘foreign’ sets up an English-versus-Other mindset, which is obsolete and misleading in today’s global society. The word ‘foreign’ also has connotations of something alien, bizarre, extraneous, ‘not from here’—none of which are helpful when we want schools and students to commit to teaching and learning another language.

The LNP was not the only offender in this case: Labor also referred to ‘foreign languages’ in its recent policy document ‘Growing Together’, an agenda for tackling inequality in Australia. And even SBS World News Radio uses the ‘F-word’ in its (otherwise insightful) report about the push by ‘foreign’-language teachers for a national languages policy to improve language-learning rates in Australia.

Moreover, common labels like ‘first’ and ‘second’ languages suggest a language hierarchy. It is simply not factual to assume that there is one, universal ‘first’ language, particularly in a multilingual society like Australia, and that this ‘first’ language is English for all students. After all, 2011 Census figures indicate almost a quarter of our population was born overseas and there are some 200 languages currently spoken in Australia. Ranking languages as ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ is dismissive of the plurilingual potential of our students.

Money DOES matter

Notwithstanding the LNP’s current general support for Languages education, the actual money allocated and the strategies they describe are very modest: namely, just $1.8 million and a pilot program including only 10,000 preschool children.

Other funding stated in their policy document is not for language teaching but for the secondary-education focused Teach for Australia (TFA) program that attracts $22.4 million.

Overall, what ‘support’ for language education means in terms of concrete funding remains obscure across the policy statements of all major Australian parties. The Labor statement argues that Languages education should not be an ‘optional extra’ within school curriculum but its support for education is a general one and it provides no specific ideas about how it would support Languages education.

Time to move beyond minimalist approaches

As with the Labor party, the Greens’ support for Languages emerges from its support for education generally. Their policy statement argues its support for Languages education in lofty language, but in words that contain little substance: Languages education will open ‘new worlds’, ‘break down barriers’ and bring about a society which is ‘more open, harmonious and tolerant’.

On a positive note, the statement affirms a commitment to teaching Asian and indigenous languages. While the funding for the teaching and learning of Asian languages is important and support for indigenous language education long overdue, these aims remain narrowly described in terms of ‘appreciation and respect for the cultures, customs and history of languages education’.

Such claims invest in the notion that learning a few words and understanding cultures and histories is a pursuit equivalent to languages learning. It fails to account for the complex linguistic, performative and normative understandings that are involved in languages learning, or the behavioural and conceptual cultural notions that set out the ambit of the worldview provided by language.

Age is no barrier

The statements of all parties iterate the common misperception that there is an age-limit on language-learning capacity. This is inaccurate, and also lowers people’s expectations about the myriad ways they can enter into multilingual capability.

While it is true that it is important and useful for children to learn languages at an early age, it is not true that younger children learn languages more easily. It is just that older learners and young children enter into the languages learning process differently. As people can successfully learn languages at any age and can engage different abilities to enable them to do so, the government needs to broaden its focus (and funding) accordingly to facilitate the uptake of Languages throughout the lifelong learning process.

It’s not all about economics and productivity

The prime rationale of Languages education, as described in all policy statements, is to serve Australia’s economic development by facilitating our engagement and competitiveness in the global economy.

While languages capabilities certainly can afford business and trade opportunities, instrumentalist discussions of this kind serve to reduce the characteristics of language to simplistic skills and knowledges to do with ‘local culture and business practices’. Reducing the ‘language barrier effect’ in international trade and business might be one outcome of Languages education, but it is facile to construct Languages education (and ‘priority’ languages) in terms of the economic importance of certain countries to Australia.

Nor just about maximising exam results

A large body of scientific literature has increased general awareness of how language learning strengthens brain function, problem solving skills, literacy and cognitive development.

Once again, though, these benefits only go a small way towards describing how Languages education is useful and important. Arguments such as these reassert the notion that Languages education is important only in terms of performativity—i.e. how multilingual capability can ‘pay out’ in quantifiable terms, in trade dollars or test scores. Moreover, saying that Languages education ‘supports’ literacy suggests that language learning can somehow be extraneous to itself and reduced to serving proficiency in some ‘first’ language.

A recipe for social cohesion?

Intercultural understanding is an important dimension of Languages, but it is instrumentalist overreach to describe the reduction of fear and prejudice as a rationale for Languages education. While very real concerns, fear and prejudice are not necessarily mitigated through Languages learning. Their reduction, however, does go a long way towards enabling future language learning.

Shifting the paradigm

To transform current debates about Languages education, we need a national language policy that works from an understanding of the multilingual capability of the world. A national policy could formally predicate the centrality of Languages education in schools and the latent multilingual capacity of multicultural Australia.

A national language policy would reshape more than school timetables and trade figures. Multilingualism and Languages education are too often understood in instrumentalist terms that cannot capture the complex linguistic, performative and normative understandings that are invested in language learning. The instrumentalist paradigm is underpinned by a monolingual mindset that, by default, positions Languages as an advantageous add-on skill. Learners may (and do) opt out.

Language, however, is both an element and an engine, component and constitutive of knowledge, culture and identity. It is this relationship that embeds the learning, use and maintenance of languages in and beyond Australia. This dynamic inter-dependence provides a sustainable focus and rationale for Languages education in our schools: the authentic negotiation of understandings of culture and identities through and in languages. A multilingual lens opens up new perspectives for socially just and innovative Languages education beyond the ‘first’ and ‘foreign’.


Dr Michiko Weinmann teaches specialist units in Languages education and EAL at Deakin University. She directs the Master of Languages teaching, and co-directs the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL), at Deakin University. Building on her multilingual capabilities, an extensive career as a languages teacher, and as Co-Director of CTaLL, she supports and promotes the teaching of languages and cultures including Indigenous, community, European and the languages of Australia’s Asian neighbours. She has researched and published widely in the areas of language, culture and identity, and is a co-editor of the journal TESOL in Context.




Dr Ruth Arber has been teaching and working in the area of English as an Additional Language pedagogy and practice for the last three decades. She currently teaches units for language pedagogy and practice at Deakin University, co-directs the Centre for Teaching and Learning Languages (CTaLL) and is a co-director of the Master of TESOL. She has researched and published extensively on identity and difference, its consequences for critical and inclusive education and for the development of innovative and inclusive languages pedagogy and practice in diverse contexts. She is co-editor of the journal TESOL in Context.