BLOG: "No need to choose between learning Te Reo vs Mandarin Chinese"

Thanks to Jeff Johnstone, Director of Education at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, for writing this piece for Newshub and RadioLIVE.

Multilingualism is not the norm in New Zealand – as a country, we tend to put language learning in the too-hard basket.

But there are some signs of a shift in sentiment. This year we've seen growing calls for Te Reo Māori to be made compulsory in New Zealand schools; incoming Education Minister Nikki Kaye says she expects a healthy debate on the topic.

Meanwhile, others are calling for Mandarin Chinese to be compulsory.

David Seymour: Don't force Kiwi kids to learn Te Reo

Here at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, we're pleased to see a conversation about the value of language learning in schools. We believe there's an opportunity to create a languages culture, where speaking two or more languages is part and parcel of growing up in New Zealand.

But talk of whether it's better for students to learn Te Reo Māori or Chinese (or any other language) is counterproductive when our young people can learn both. In my experience, primary school students naturally lap up languages.

Before joining the Asia New Zealand Foundation, I was principal of a large Auckland primary school. Our students learnt both Te Reo Māori and Chinese, engaging with the languages with a sense of enjoyment and an innate curiosity about the cultures.
Encouragingly, New Zealand adults are also receptive to the idea of language learning. The Asia New Zealand Foundation's Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples survey, released in March, found eight in 10 New Zealanders believe school children should learn a language other than English. Just over half of that group said children should be learning Chinese, with Te Reo Māori close behind. About 20 percent selected French, Japanese and Spanish.

However, the stated support for language learning is somewhat at odds with the reality. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of New Zealand secondary students learning languages dropped by 14 percent. And the number learning Asian languages dropped by a whopping 29 percent over the same period.

This is mostly due to the decline in high school students studying Japanese – but we have also seen the number of secondary students of Bahasa Indonesia drop to zero, while only a handful study Korean.

This picture is potentially detrimental to New Zealand's future when you consider our growing trade and strategic ties to Asian countries, and New Zealand's growing Asian population. Learning languages provides valuable insights to cultures, improves student achievement at school and is a lifelong asset.

New Zealand's diversity offers enormous potential for our international engagement. But we currently have a situation where many of our children enter our education system bilingual or multilingual - and come out the other end monolingual.

So what can be done to reverse this trend?

The Government has already committed $10 million to develop Asian language clusters in New Zealand schools. But we also see the need for a long-term strategy to support language learning throughout the entire education system.

Last year the Asia New Zealand Foundation worked with the New Zealand Association of Language Teachers to deliver five key recommendations to the Government. These included developing a languages strategy; updating the New Zealand Curriculum and NCEA requirements to resolve roadblocks to language pathways, particularly at the NCEA levels; and building a quality language teaching force.

As we enter the expected healthy debate on language learning, we urge those across the language spectrum to support each other in developing a languages culture within New Zealand. Creating a multilingual New Zealand is achievable if we have vision about the opportunities - and if we talk about it in collaborative, rather than competitive, terms.

Jeff Johnstone is Director of Education at the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation that runs a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia, and to forge links to the region.