Language of the future or national threat? Unpacking the discourses of teaching and learning Chinese in Australian schools

Research Highlighted:

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.

The context of Chinese language education in Australia

Mandarin Chinese has a unique place in Australian society. As China is Australia’s key trading partner, the teaching of  Mandarin has received significant government support (Chen, 2015), especially as Australian schooling policy highlights the importance of language learning for future global citizens (Council of Australian Governments, 2019). Chinese also has the highest number of speakers in the Australian population after English, and is widely taught in Australian schools (Orton, 2016). However, despite the accolades, learners from non-Chinese backgrounds often feel demotivated for two reasons: the relative difficulty of Mandarin compared to cognate European languages (Scarino et al., 2011), and their perceived disadvantage compared to their classmates of Chinese heritage (Chen & Fletcher, 2016).

The same tropes of ‘hope, hype and fear’ (Duff et al., 2015, p. 139) that frame the teaching of Mandarin in Australia are also reflected in recent media and professional teacher conversations around popular discourses of Chinese language education. In order to tease out these complexities, our study followed a mediated discourse research approach (Scollon & Scollon, 2004), which is ‘grounded in the notion that human action is accomplished through discourse as it appears in many forms, whether talk, a wide range of hard copy and digital texts, mental representations of texts from the near or distant past and potential futures’ (Roozen & Erickson, 2017, p. 2.03).

Data sources

We drew on two studies investigating recent perspectives on the teaching and learning of languages in Australian schools. In the first, we analysed how Chinese (Mandarin) language programs and policy rationales had been represented in mainstream Australian print media between 2012—when the now-archived Asian Century White Paper (Australian Government, 2012) was released—and 2017.

In the second study, we interviewed languages teachers from Victoria, Australia, for their perspectives about the implementation of the National Curriculum (Languages). Here we draw on one group interview with two teachers of Asian languages: ‘Stephanie’, Head of Languages at a Catholic secondary school in metropolitan Melbourne and a teacher of Japanese, and ‘Eric’, who works at an independent Foundation–Grade 12 college. He also holds a leadership position in Languages, and teaches Chinese, his native language.

Thematic analysis was used for both studies (Nowell et al., 2017). We began by grouping the selected articles in terms of the socio-historical and political discourses that they represented or challenged regarding China and Chinese language learning, followed by a close analysis of textual features. For the interview data, we analysed stories the educators told in relation to their experiences, pedagogy and practice, then explored underlying beliefs and tensions—and the discourses that shaped them (Lather, 2013).

Theoretical underpinnings

Our exploration of the discourses of (Chinese) language takes as its premise that languages teaching and learning ‘both reflect and constitute language ideologies, … [which] involve not just language issues, they also intersect with taken-for-granted ideas of race, ethnicity and culture, producing and reinforcing complex relations of power’ (Kubota, 2019, p. 111).

The multilingual turn (May, 2014) in language studies has highlighted the complex interconnections between language, culture, identity and difference (Kramsch & Zhu, 2020). In Australia, the tensions between Western, white and Anglophone ‘norms’ (Kincheloe & Steinberg 1997) and ‘others’ (Said, 2003) are reflected in the contentious relation between monolingualism and multilingualism in Australia (Piller, 2016), which continues to impede ‘a more constructive approach that seeks to … integrate the multiplicity of linguistic stimuli and various cultural settings for any language user, irrespective of whether they speak one or many’ (Nord, 2018, p. 9). Drawing on these theoretical directions, we re-examined how speakers, teachers and learners of languages, and multilingual classrooms are constructed and perceived, and how these dynamics could be more comprehensively understood and interrogated (Weinmann & Arber, 2017).

Findings and discussion

We found a strong discrepancy between advocacy for Chinese language instruction as strategic for Australia’s economic future, and media and public debates that portray Chinese as ‘too difficult and too foreign to learn’. The overarching themes that emerged from our data were:

  • Chinese as the ‘language of the future’
  • Ambivalence towards teaching and learning Chinese
  • Chinese culture and language as too foreign and ‘difficult’.

The ‘language of the future’

In half of the articles selected, Chinese programs were portrayed as ‘state of the art’; headings such as ‘bilingual first in schools’ suggested that bilingual programs are a new phenomenon, rather than long-established in Australia. Several articles also celebrated Chinese language programs as technologically innovative, enabling students to form ‘virtual relationships’ with ‘digital sister schools’ in China, suggesting that the goal of language learning is to communicate with ‘foreign people’ overseas—and excluding the significant Chinese-speaking community in Australia’s ‘own backyard’.

Ambivalence towards Chinese language study

Reflecting the controversy of China’s investment in ‘cultural projection to the world’ (Gil, 2015), many articles criticised the role of Confucius Classrooms. Headings such as ‘Schools paid $10,000 to teach Chinese, and ‘China sends teachers to Palmerston’,suggest that such programs are driven by China alone. In the same article, a statement such as ‘the Territory will soon be speaking Chinese if the NT [Northern Territory] Government gets its way’ imply hostility towards the arrival of ‘twenty Chinese teachers set to be calling the Northern Territory home’. Chinese language and culture are thus politicised as threats to Australian national identity—a view reinforced and manifested by a hierarchical view of languages.

‘It’s too foreign’

Chinese may be the ‘language of the future’—but for some, ‘survival’ Chinese may be enough, as an Australian company manager comments: ‘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’ (Irwin, 2016).

With this view, proficiency—and a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and society—are therefore supposedly unnecessary. Surprisingly, some Languages teachers we interviewed expressed similar concerns:

We’ve always viewed Japanese with a sense of prestige. Kids like animated cartoons, feel like there’s things they can really relate to. Now, Chinese hasn’t got that. (Stephanie)

Popular culture can generate an interest in language learning, but it does not occur as often as assumed (Armour & Iida, 2016). Stephanie’s comment suggests that China and Chinese language lack cultural aspects that Australian students can relate to, and are therefore perceived as distant from ‘Australian’ culture. This is a theme echoed by Eric:

The [Chinese] textbook layout … doesn’t feel Western. It feels, just even opening the book, [the] quality of the pages, fonts … kids look at it and go, ‘This looks really foreign.’ (Eric)

For Eric, even a common textbook resource represents a linguistic and cultural chasm between East and West, which alienates Australian students when they first encounter Chinese.

These research snapshots reflect well-documented themes in media and teacher discourses in Australia about Chinese language education: Chinese language study as purely instrumental, exoticising cultural and linguistic ‘others’, along with strong ambivalence towards China and speakers of Chinese.

With current Australia–China tensions, re-establishing relationships that move beyond the binaries of ‘us versus them’ could be crucial for stability in our region.  If Chinese is to be positioned as the ‘language of the future’ and worth studying, it requires progressive policy and language programming that recognise that ‘while multilingualism is laudatory, the means by which one becomes multilingual also matter’. More critical engagement with Australia’s multicultural identity is needed, which will also raise new questions about how Australia communicates with its Asian neighbours.


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Australian Government. (2012). Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.

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Chen, Z. (2015). Challenges of teaching Chinese in Australian schools: Lesson from beginning teacher-researchers. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 6(5), 933–942.

Council of Australian Governments: Education Council (2019). Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

Duff, P., Anderson, T., Doherty, L., & Wang, R. (2015). Representations of Chinese language learning in contemporary English-language news media: Hope, hype, and fear. Global Chinese, 1(1), 139–168.

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Irwin, D.(2016, 24 October). First job–and where are you now? Gold Coast Bulletin.

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Kramsch, C. & Hua Z. (2020). Translating culture in global times: An introduction. Applied Linguistics, 41(1), 1–9.

Kubota, R. (2019). English in Japan. In P. Heinrich & Y. Ohara (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of Japanese sociolinguistics (pp. 110–126). Routledge.

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Nowell, L., Norris, J., White, D. & Moules, N. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 

Orton, J. (2016). Building Chinese language capacity in Australia. The Australia–China Relations Institute (ACRI).

Piller, I. (2016). Monolingual ways of seeing multilingualism. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 11, 25–33.

Roozen, K. & Erickson, J. (2017). Expanding literate landscapes: Persons, practices, and sociohistoric perspectives of disciplinary development. Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press.

Scarino, A., Elder, C., Iwashita, N., Kim, S. H. O., Kohler, M., & Scrimgeour, A. (2011). Student achievement in Asian languages education. Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

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Weinmann, M. & Arber, R. (2017). Orientating languages: Navigating multilingual spaces. Curriculum Perspectives,37, 173–179. doi: 10.1007/s41297-017-0028-4

Author biographies

Dr Michiko Weinmann, Deakin University

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: 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, Deakin University

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. You can follow Rod on Twitter at @RodNeilsen

Sophia Slavich, Stawell Primary School, Victoria

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.

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