Our PM shouldn’t be so shy about his language skills
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit it, but if it wasn’t for Kevin Rudd, I would be among the majority of Australians who can only speak one language.
It was almost two years ago, and I was watching the news coverage of the Sydney APEC summit, enthralled by the pre-election battle between John Howard and Kevin Rudd.
Though the outcome already seemed a foregone conclusion, a few sentences of cool, calm and collected Mandarin from the PM-in-waiting seemed to put that final nail in the coffin.
At least, for me.
I hadn’t seen a westerner speaking fluent Chinese before. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be done. But there he was, looking smarter than everybody else in the room, and even extracting a few giggles from Hu Jintao. Imagine him doing that now. Things might be a little too touchy.
But back before the diplomatic dance between the two countries became delicate, Kevin Rudd’s masterful mandarin moment was making waves of a different sort. It was turning a number of young Australians into budding sinophiles.
I was one of them, and I enrolled in classes, bought the 101 textbooks and tackled mandarin from scratch, knowing nothing, expecting little, but ever keen to see if it was possible.
Three friends of mine who also watched Rudd’s smooth-tongue display did exactly the same… Who knows how many others across the nation were inspired in the same way?
The Australian National University said enrolments in Asian languages were up the following year. The 2020 summit declared Asia literacy needed to be a part of mainstream Australian society. The Federal government announced it was throwing 60 million dollars at encouraging school students to study Asian lanaguages. We were all taking them up, it seemed.
All struggling with the thousands upon thousands of characters; all battling with the grammatical complexities that undermine your confidence when speaking; and all trying to come to terms with the endless frustration of pronouncing the tones correctly.
Almost two years on from Rudd showing-off at APEC, I’m still studying. My three friends are not. Like them, I almost conceded defeat when I realised, quite quickly, that mandarin is a ridiculously hard language, that seemingly taunts you for trying to speak it ....
Deflated, I almost gave it away, but I somehow managed to plug the hole before all my enthusiasm leaked out. It required a little maintenence… a three-month stint in Beijing, two classes in Sydney, a tutor and a daily dose of study, not to mention frequent trips to Chinatown to practise the textbook chapters about how to order dumplings.
Two years on, I can now speak… some… Chinese. Quite a bit actually. Enough to surprise waiters in restaurants, overhear conversations on buses, and most importantly, enough to go there, work there, and hold my own. And that’s the point.
While the initial challenge for the government, universities and schools might be to get Australians to take up an Asian language, the main game will be about how to keep them going.They’ll need motivation, and not just lectures on how valuable a language will be for business and trade down the track. Kevin Rudd can help with that.
His impressive display in front of the Chinese President helped persuade many of us to start learning, and though it may open him to accusations of being too close to the Middle Kingdom, a little more Mandarin in front of the cameras could help us to remember why we’re still at it.
Though he’s not known to usually inspire people with his legendary ‘Ruddspeak’, just a few sentences from time to time could be the difference between people learning an Asian language, and actually speaking one.
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