Australia’s Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has helped spark a renaissance in the study of Asian languages, with record numbers of students signing up for Chinese, a major university said on Friday.
“There has been a significant increase in students wanting to study Mandarin, probably reflecting that we have a prime minister that speaks Chinese,” Australian National University’s (ANU) Kent Anderson said.
“But across the board Asian languages are proving popular with students which fits in nicely with the government’s languages program,” the head of the university’s Asian Studies faculty said in a statement.
There was a 23 percent increase overall in the number of Asian studies applicants for this year at the university, with growing demand for classes in Japanese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese, he added.
Rudd, who became prime minister little more than a year ago, quickly put in place a A$62 million (US$44 million) Asian languages program for high schools.
By 2020 the program aims to have 12 percent of graduates fluent in either Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian or Korean.
“This is the Asia century, our No. 1 trade partner is China and our No. 1 export partner is Japan,” Anderson said. “It’s in our economic interests, it’s in our security interests to make that kind of investment.”
Rudd studied at the ANU in the 1970s, majoring in Chinese language and history before continuing his studies in Taiwan and going on to become a diplomat appointed to Beijing.
His fluent Mandarin — a unique skill among Western world leaders — has charmed Chinese from President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Beijing university students and impressed his countrymen since he came to power.
“The growing economy [of China] and the profile given to it by having the prime minister speak Chinese has an impact on the kind of people who are seeing the economic opportunities in China and other regional economies,” Anderson said.
But he expressed concern about a decline in Indonesian studies, which began after the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
With Indonesia being Australia’s closest neighbor it was critical to educate a new generation about the country, but government security warnings against travel there deterred students from in-country study, Anderson said.