Boost for language learning in schools

Why learn another language? It’s about more than being able to converse in a different tongue, writes Lee Seabrook-Suckling. Here’s why Asian languages could soon be a priority in the New Zealand schooling system.

Six of the ten most spoken languages in the world come from Asian nations. The Education (Strengthening Second Language Learning in Primary and Intermediate Schools) Amendment Bill, which is currently before the New Zealand select committee and accepting submissions, seeks to introduce children as young as five to a new language at school. If schools can choose from a list of 10 “priority” languages to teach primary and intermediate students, Asian languages (such as Mandarin and Hindi) should be some of them.  

This, naturally, is the official view of the Asia New Zealand FoundationBack in 2018 when National MP Nikki Kaye’s bill was pulled from the ballot, the Foundation’s executive director Simon Draper said 80 percent of surveyed parents wanted their child to learn a second language. He lamented that when it came to Asian language teaching, much of it in New Zealand was determined by other governments' funding. 

Writing for The Indian Weekender, Sandeep Singh says several prominent Hindi educators, activists, laureates, and media specialists have been collaborating since mid-2020 to come up with a submission to include the Hindi language in that list of 10 priority languages. It was finalised in September for submission. Dr Pushpa Wood of Massey University was a leader in the submission. “In my view, the whole demographic of the nation has changed in the last 20-30 years,” she says. “On one hand, we have people from multicultural and multilingual backgrounds with New Zealand-born children who grew up here. Their language and culture need to be encouraged, supported, and developed.  

“On the other hand, there’s a group of children who grew up in a monolingual and monocultural (or maybe bicultural but still monolingual) way. Looking at the next five, 10, 20 years in trade, tourism, and hospitality, it’s imperative for them to understand who they are working with.” That, naturally, is people who don’t speak English as their primary language. “If we are going to keep them coming back, we need to value them,” Wood adds.  

The ten most spoken languages in the world are as follows: Chinese (including Mandarin) tops the list with 1.3 billion native speakers. Then comes Spanish (400 million), English (379 million), Hindi (341 million), Arabic (315 million), Bengali (228 million), Portuguese (220 million), Russian (153 million), Japanese (128 million), and Lahnda (Western Punjabi) with 118 million native speakers.  

New Zealand’s relationship with Asia and Asian communities is rich. There are over 700,000 people of Asian descent living here. We are economically tied to Asia (particularly but not exclusively through the meat and dairy industries). Many of us eat Asian food every day, we work with Asian people in our officesand we have an entire culture situated around Indian-owned dairies; something so ingrained in New Zealand society, we wouldn’t be Kiwis without itPre-pandemic, New Zealand received over 450,000 visitors from China each year who spent tourist dollars here.  

There’s an old joke often heard in southern Europe, “What do you call a person who only speaks one language? An American!” However, you could also be a New Zealander. While Te Reo Māori is seeing a resurgence, bilingualism and multilingualism are still not a normal part of growing up in New Zealand.

Learning a non-English language, particularly a language with a different script like most Asian languages, comes with more benefits than being able to understand and speak in a different tongue. It has several cognitive benefitsit increases memory power, sharpens the mind, and even buffers the brain against aging. “It widens our brainpower; enriching the experience for our children,” Wood says. What’s more, learning another language also contributes to a knowledge of globalisation, and how the world works and creates empathy. 

Not all teachers of languages actually believe a second language (that isn’t an official language of New Zealand, i.e. Te Reo or New Zealand Sign Language) should be required learning. Catherine Churchman, lecturer of Asian studies at Victoria University, has mixed feelings. “I love Asian languages myself, but I am also aware that most other people don't share this love, and I feel it is unfair to force them into it,” she says. “I do believe that interested students should at least have the options to do them, though.”  

This brings up a logistical dilemma of bringing Asian languages into New Zealand schools. Significant funding would need to go into enticing skilled teachers to the country – currently, the numbers of Mandarin or Hindi teachers just aren’t there. Moreover, Asian languages do require time and dedication to learn – more so than any Latin tongue. “For economic purposes, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Indonesian are probably the best Asian ones for people here to learn,” Churchman explains. “However, I feel that high schools and universities aren't really capable of teaching Asian languages to a level that is useful. So extra institutional support is necessary for training those who wish to reach levels of proficiency in these languages (being able to read a news report, understand what is being said in ordinary conversations – in-country training for a year in addition to four full years of university level).”  

Churchman believes that the minimal numbers of students in courses should be scrapped, small class sizes (10 at most) with seven-to-eight hours of contact a week over four years would be ideal. It pays to note, she adds, “Mandarin and Japanese take six times as many hours of study as Spanish to reach the same level of proficiency, and this is one reason so many people give up learning them before getting anywhere - they do not have the time set aside to learn them properly.  

Regardless, the learning of a second language – any second language – could be the norm in New Zealand if this bill passes; not something reserved for the “creative” and “arty” kids. Arguably, icould be as important as science or social studies; subjects many children don’t have a “passion” for, yet they are vital learning for them, nonetheless“Language gives us an insight into people that speak that language,” Wood says. “It gives insights into people and their value base, their culture, their traditions. If we want to make our children global citizens in a flexible and seamless way, they have to learn other languages.”  

- Asia Media Centre