NZ addresses the language barrier
Acouple of months back, I had the chance to chat to a successful Kiwi lawyer based in Singapore. He’d been working there for more than a decade on interesting international projects and had earned an impressive salary.
At the event we were at, university students grilled him for career advice.
But he confessed to me that if he were graduating today, the skills he had in his early twenties would no longer be enough.
In particular, he left university monolingual, which would put him at a distinct disadvantage today.
Competition for jobs is now much greater, he said, with many multilingual and globallyeducated graduates coming out of the likes of India and China.
Here in Aotearoa, we celebrated Te Wiki o Te Reo Ma¯ ori last week.
It was accompanied by the usual grumbles from some New Zealanders who would prefer it if everybody just spoke English all the time. Thankfully, these grumbles seem to be diminishing.
And just days earlier, Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye’s Education (Strengthening Second Language Learning in Primary and Intermediate Schools) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot at Parliament to go to its first reading.
Kaye’s proposed bill would require the Ministry of Education to set at least 10 national priority languages for schools following a public consultation process.
The bill says te reo Ma¯ ori and New Zealand sign languages will be on the list that schools can choose from.
School boards would decide which would be taught.
‘‘I’d expect that other languages that would be consulted on would include Mandarin, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and potentially Hindi,’’ Kaye said.
Meanwhile, the Green Party launched a policy aimed at making te reo a core curriculum topic by 2025.
Kaye’s bill, and the Greens policy, give New Zealand an opportunity to make some real progress on language learning.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation is keen to see the bill progress to select committee so New Zealanders can have a proper conversation about the topic. We need a national languages policy.
Our Perceptions of Asia research has shown 80 per cent of New Zealanders believe children should learn a second language at school.
But the reality is New Zealand has generally left the responsibility of investing in upskilling Kiwis in languages to foreign governments and institutions.
In the 1980s and 1990s, more New Zealand students chose to study Japanese than any other language, aided by investment from Japan in initiatives such as the JET scheme and support for New Zealand teachers of Japanese.
Today, Confucius Institutes in our universities administer the Chinese government’s Mandarin Language Assistants scheme, which sees these assistants working alongside New Zealand teachers in our schools.
This external investment by overseas countries has previously prompted concerns in some quarters that the teaching of te reo isn’t always resourced in the same way.
The foundation knows from our work with schools that children who are bilingual find it easier to acquire further languages and become multilingual.
We have visited schools in Gisborne and Taranaki with children who are already bilingual in te reo and English. Their teachers have been struck by how easily these students have picked up Mandarin.
Multilingualism is normal in much of the world. If New Zealand wants to raise global citizens, then students need to know where they stand in the world, and knowing who they are as New Zealanders is a fundamental part of that.
Boards of trustees, principals and teachers at many schools around Aotearoa have been working hard to create classroom environments that foster bilingualism and multilingualism.
Families also play a role, but it shouldn’t be up to them alone.
It’s time for our Government to invest in languages in a sustainable way.
Countries make an investment in language teaching to help their young people become more culturally competent, competitive and globally mobile.
Soon, monolingual lawyers wanting to work in Singapore probably won’t make the cut.
Volunteer Mandarin tutor Sunny Shan with resources gifted by the Confucius Institute to Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru. Overseas governments and organisations have stepped into the language gap here, says Simon Draper.