Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue?

“Mr Abbott's goals for Australia's linguistic future can be achieved only with the express support of state leaders, who must mandate the study of at least one language other than English for all students from Year 4/5 to Year 10.” And “The Leader of the Opposition's proposal to have 40% of Year 12 students learning a foreign language within a decade is seriously intelligent policy.” Fiona Mueller

More seriously unintelligent thinking from Tony Abbot?

Our children’s study time is limited. What they learn before they move out of the education system and into the rest of their lives is crucial. The most successful people are those who are comfortable with their own existence. We have a responsibility to shape the minds of the young when it is most plastic in a way which will enhance their chances of being at ease with their own existence. In other words, we must ensure that they have the necessary life-philosophy.

In the matter of language, John McCrone, author of The Ape that Spoke,has something of far more substance to say than has Tony Abbot:

We arrive in the world with the naked brain of an animal and through the moulding power of speech, we become equipped with the thought habits which make us human.

What makes us human! Contemplations at that level are seriously intelligent thinking.

Tony Abbot has studied Latin and Ancient Greek. An interesting and probably enjoyable mental exercise, but it did nothing to warn him against making bizarre statements regarding climate change and the national optic fibre rollout.

Besides being scientifically illiterate, why does Abbot place so much importance on acquiring a foreign tongue? It’s the global market place he sees where riches beckon. But the evolution of differing languages was never a barrier to the spread of ideas. In the 21st century, this has never been truer.

Setting the right priorities

In my final two years at school, the question as to what use was a BA majoring in a language going to be to anyone was occasionally asked. The stock answer was that it might lead to a career in the diplomatic service. The clear message was that learning a foreign language was not the means to the making of a living to aim for.

Today the focus is no longer on doing business with Britain. We are on the world stage and, if you can speak  Chinese, a company which does business with China could use you.

However, in the bigger picture, I cannot see much urgency in learning Chinese or Japanese when public signage in China and Japan is becoming bilingual - with that second language being our native tongue. English is the first language of India’s middle class. Indonesia is doing what the rest of South East Asia has been doing for years - which is to use English as the language to do business in. So, why not just sit back and wait for the rest of the word to learn to speak the way we already can?

Besides, English is the world language of science and technology - and that is what really matters.

How important is knowing why we are who we are?

Such knowledge has become increasingly important as society became less religious. Religion built a deep structure into our lives. It was the reference point. It was where we touched base. Scientific revelation can now fulfil this role. An awareness of the process of the acquisition of language is an example.

“Astonishing” hardly seems to be the appropriate word to describe the acquisition of language. At two and one half years my grand-daughter was putting sentences of three or four words together, but her words were difficult to understand. At age five she can now express simple ideas.

While others thought her way of speaking as being cute, as a reader of the new books of revelation, I saw the wonder in it. I was aware that I was observing the results of the neural networks in her speech centres being steadily hardwired - seemingly by the week. This was not cute. This was awesome.

The brain cells of my grand-daughter function very similarly to those of a fish and the structure of her brain is almost the same as an ape. It is social contact which is accelerating the growth and abilities of her frontal cortex in a feedback with the developing speech centres in her brain.

René  Descartes famously said: “I think - therefore I am.” Could Descartes think without using words? No, he could not. You might say that you are not thinking in words about what you are doing when you are driving (e.g. you don’t have to say: “I now have to turn the steering wheel to turn around that corner.”) However, when learning to drive, then talking to yourself is what you did. Now the network of brain cells that was constructed by words holds the program enabling you to drive.

If Descartes was alive today he would be saying: “I speak - therefore I am.”

Abbot fails to see wealth where it really is

The humanities people fear that an increasing emphasis on science and mathematics will desensitise the young mind to the feeling side of human nature - the side which enjoys poetry and music. It would be a very rare scientist who does not have a keen (even passionate) interest in some aspect of life outside of science. And science tells the  human side of history which the history of nations our children study does not.

Imagine a camp fire scene of 50,000 years ago. Those huddled together from the cold and staring into the light are making many sounds that those of 50,000 years earlier were not making. The sounds we now call words are connected into strings we now call sentences. The strings are very short. Linking the names of objects we now call nouns there are action words we now call verbs. The human ear is ready for many more differing words and the human tongue and larynx ready to utter many more differing words. Words we now call adjectives will be added. This will occur around camp fires in the millennia ahead when ideas of increasing complexity will be exchanged and entertaining stories told.

In the above scene stretched over millennia the most important series of events in the history of the planet is occurring. The software and the hardware are developing each other in the brains of our ancestors. One day that brain being shaped around campfires will be composing symphonies, designing 100-story buildings, replacing defunct human organs sending probes to the edge of the solar system.

Science tells other stories which remind us of the other life forms who we should be unselfishly sharing the planet with and not destroying in the pursuit of economic growth. To regain the spiritual that religion once provided, there is a lot to learn from the new books of revelation.

Our children do not have the time to be distracted by Tony Abbot’s interpretation of enlightenment. We don’t need 40% of our senior students ploughing through text books and sitting for exams in some foreign tongue because some politicians believe we need a sales advantage in the world market place more than we need the holistic and nourishing life-philosophy that scientific revelation is waiting there to give all who show an interest in receiving it.

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

This article was first published online at Online Opinion