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The great Hindi debate May 23, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Alexandra Hansen

A public call for submissions into the Government’s Australia in the Asian Century country strategies turned into a debate on whether a focus on Asian languages was necessary for improving relations between Australia and our five priority Asian partners. Constituents from the Higher Education sector called for a focus on key Asian languages; Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Indonesian, and Korean, saying it’s impossible to do business with Asia or understand their culture if we don’t speak the same language.

John Hajek from the University of Melbourne’s Language and Linguistics department said the word “language” is seen 94 times in the Asian Century White Paper, but you still see Australian Universities, such as Curtin in Perth, cutting their Asian language programs. Hajek said the onus is on DFAT to promote languages for trade purposes, and the Federal Government to insist universities don’t close down their language departments. He also pointed to the fact that DFAT do not offer Hindi as a diplomatic language, and in Australia there is currently only one Hindi lecturer at a tertiary level.

The Age’s Daniel Flitton agreed there has been a drop-off in recent years of Asian languages and this needs to be addressed. However, Indian-born entrepreneur Ravi Bhatia said understanding Indian culture, business and academia is more important than understanding Hindi. “I think there has been an over-emphasis on language. A lack of Hindi hasn’t deterred Australian trade with India to the tone of 20 billion dollars,” he said. Impediments to doing business with India are not a lack of Hindi, he said, but “prejudice, glass ceilings, and the time it takes to get things done in India.”

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University John Rosenberg said Australian Universities can’t be to blame for a decline in languages, but rather the cost, and the appetite amongst students. “Languages are incredibly expensive to teach, and I have to tell you that the funding received from the Commonwealth Government is insufficient to undertake that teaching…and when we see a 2% productivity dividend…I fear we will see more languages disappear.”

Other issues raised in the session dealt with how Australia is promoted overseas and the barriers to trade and investment. Business groups called for free trade agreements between Australia and China, and Chinese and Indian diaspora spoke about the difficulty of finding a place in Australian society.

A representative from the Indian Executive said there is a perception in India that Indians can’t get key positions in the Australian work force, and others said there is a perception in Asia that Australians are interested in Asia’s burgeoning economies, but not their cultures.

Alexandra Hansen is Communications Officer/Web Editor at the Australia India Institute. First posted on Australia India Institute News page, 13 May 2013.


1. Mark Jones - May 25, 2013

This debate proceeds from the premise that “it’s impossible to do business with Asia or understand their culture if we don’t speak the same language.” True enough, but the fact is the Australia and India do speak the same language, English!

The English/Hindi debate that raged mid last century has long become quiescent and since the reforms of 1991 and the lifting of educational policies dictated by the state, parents have been voting with their feet and sending their children to English-medium schools. The growth in such schools has been dramatic in recent years and is obvious to anyone who walks around India’s cities, towns and villages. Indeed the majority of schools in India are now English-medium schools and they are attended by all but the very poorest of children.

Australia in the Asian Century looks to where we want to be in relation to India in 2025. This implies that not only look to where we want to be at that time, but also where India is likely to be at the same time. English is already the most widely understood language in India and is both the primary signifier of middleclass status and the key to the opportunities of the new neoliberal economic opportunities that are taking India headlong into the 21st century. Hindi, while important to the family and cultural life of a small urban elite in the north of the country, will have little relevance to wider India in the 21st century.

So the question is, do we want to be where India hoped to be in 1965 or where it is almost certainly going to be in 2025? Perhaps more importantly, how do we maximise our opportunities in helping them get there?