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Chinese Language Learning in New Zealand Is Declining – Why We Should Be Worried

September 18, 2023

This op-ed by New Zealand China Council Chair John McKinnon was originally published on interest.co.nz on 18 Sep 2023.

As we mark New Zealand Chinese Language Week this week it’s time to confront the uncomfortable truth that interest in studying Chinese is declining.

Language study in New Zealand is always evolving.  These days, for very compelling reasons, an increasing number of Māori and non-Māori New Zealanders are focused on Te Reo Māori acquisition.  I hope we are seeing increased interest in learning New Zealand Sign Language too, as another of our official languages.

We are also an increasingly multicultural society.  In many cases new kiwis have a mother tongue that is not one of New Zealand’s three recognised languages.  They often wish to ensure their children maintain this linguistic heritage, so a wide range of languages are taught formally or informally, in local communities and at home.  This of course includes many families with Chinese-speaking backgrounds.

But when it comes to formal foreign language study in schools and tertiary institutions, student numbers for many languages are in decline.

According to Ministry of Education data, since 2005 the number of our school students learning French, Japanese and Samoan have all decreased.  Spanish has become more popular over that period.  So has Mandarin.  But Mandarin language class enrolments reached a peak in 2020 and are now down 20 per cent from that level.  And university enrolments for the same subject dropped 48 per cent between 2013 and 2022.

In this we are not alone.  Mandarin enrolments in US universities have fallen faster than those in all other foreign languages combined.  A new UK report has pointed out the insufficient number of Chinese language speakers and overall lack of understanding of China in the UK, calling it a critical issue for effective bilateral engagement.

There are many reasons why we should focus on learning other languages, including Chinese.

In an increasingly diverse society like New Zealand, learning a language shows respect for culture and a commitment to inclusion.  Whether it be Samoan, Cantonese or Punjabi, investing time and effort sends a powerful signal.

Speaking a foreign language also helps us to welcome our temporary visitors to New Zealand.  Covid disruptions decimated our international tourism and education sectors and they are still struggling to recover. But as they do, being able to offer our guests hospitality in a way that makes a genuine connection is critical for an enjoyable and smooth visitor experience.  We have lost some of those competencies across our workforce over the last few years and we need to recover them.

Personal partnerships form the basis of much successful international business in other ways too.  Learning another language is not just about the words.  It opens up new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding the world, and a recognition that despite language barriers we are much alike in our common humanity.  The ability to converse in another person’s native language improves cultural competency and establishes respect, trust and friendship.

The UK report cited above argued that the country’s language competency gap cost it an estimated 2.5% of its GDP or 48 billion GBP annually due to language barriers in trade.

And of course, New Zealanders travel outwards too.  We are welcome in the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.  But there are other worlds besides, where English is often not a native language.   Learning Arabic, Persian, Russian, Japanese or Chinese opens up those worlds in ways that nothing else does.   Such is the asymmetry of language learning that even a modest effort to master one of these or countless other languages receives an enthusiastic response.

So…what language to learn?  There is a world of possibilities, from languages using our own Romanized alphabet like French, German and Spanish (the staple of high school curricula for generations), but also Italian, Polish, Turkish, Bahasa Indonesia, Vietnamese and all the Pacific languages.  Crossing the alphabet barrier are Russian and Greek, Arabic and Hebrew.  And at the outer edge of familiarity are languages such as Chinese, Korean and Japanese. It is perhaps unfortunate that the countries with which New Zealand has the closest connections, outside those whose native language is English, are those which are most remote linguistically from English.

But in practice in New Zealand the above choice is not as wide as it seems because the prerequisite to learning a language is to have well trained teachers, and these are not as abundant as the languages themselves.  It is in many instances thanks to the generosity of foreign governments – China, Japan, Germany, France – that foreign languages are taught in New Zealand to the degree they are.  In effect the foreign taxpayer is relieving the New Zealand taxpayer of a responsibility.

I speak and write Chinese myself and am the chair of the New Zealand China Council, so it is not surprising that I am keen to see more people learning Chinese languages.   But I would be very happy if there was more foreign language learning in this country overall.

What better way to mark New Zealand Chinese Language Week?

John McKinnon is Chair of the New Zealand China Council and former New Zealand Ambassador to China.  The views expressed in the article are his own.

 New Zealand Chinese Language Week runs 17-23 September.

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