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Schools fail on foreign languages

author:New Zealand Herald

Public support strong for more Mandarin classes but uptake poor given its importance to our trading future

Nearly half of Kiwis who want schoolchildren to learn a foreign language pick Chinese as the language to learn, according to a survey.

Eight in 10 New Zealanders told researchers for an Asia New Zealand Foundation study that schoolchildren should learn languages other than English. Nearly half of those, or 49 per cent, said students should learn Mandarin.

However, the report found a "considerable gap" between the respondents' preferences and the numbers of language learners in secondary schools.

 Click here to see how all languages have changed in schools.

Just 4218 secondary school students were enrolled to learn Chinese last year, a distant fourth in foreign languages behind French (20,478), Japanese (11,888) and Spanish (11,573).

The survey found some New Zealanders were opposed to schools teaching Chinese, which researchers said stemmed from their belief that Chinese migrants should learn English rather than New Zealanders learn their language.

"I don't think that learning the Chinese language is important for New Zealand children ... there are far more important life matters to be educated on," said a respondent identified in the report as a Pakeha man from Auckland aged in his 50s.

"It is up to migrants to learn New Zealand's first language."

Overall, Ministry of Education figures show the percentage of secondary school language learners to be the lowest since 1933.

Ministry of Education head of student achievement, Dr Graham Stoop, said the drop in language enrolments was because students no longer saw languages as important.

"Schools offer languages students want to learn," Dr Stoop said.

Calls for an introduction of a national language policy in New Zealand were made more than 20 years ago, however there is still no national language policy and learning a foreign language is not compulsory in schools.

Massey University associate professor Henry Chung, a specialist in China marketing, said not prioritising language learning could be detrimental to New Zealand.

He believed that in a "modern globalised economy", international languages — especially Chinese — were possibly the "most important" subjects students should be learning to ensure a better future.

"Do not forget that there are more than 1.4 billion people, or a quarter of the world's population, speaking this language, and the Chinese influence is increasing almost on a daily basis," Professor Chung said.

"To compete effectively in the Chinese markets, we need to understand its roots first and Chinese language is the first and most important step towards this understanding."

Professor Brigid Heywood, chairwoman of the Sasakawa Fellowship Fund for Japanese Education, wrote in a 2013 report that "the resolutely monolingual 'English is all we need' attitude of many New Zealanders" could possibly be a cause for the drop in Japanese learners.

Of the commonly taught international languages at secondary schools, only Chinese and Spanish are not in decline.

The Asian Language Learning in Schools programme — a $10 million contestable fund over the next five years to support teaching of Mandarin, Japanese and Korean — was launched by the Government last year. It was set up because of the drop in numbers of students learning these languages. China, Japan and South Korea all rank among New Zealand's top five trading partners.

For More Information The New Zealand Herald.

Monday April 27th 2015 2012