Mandarin becoming the language to study

By Elizabeth Binning

Benjamin Eastman decided to learn Mandarin so he could become friends with Chinese students. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Benjamin Eastman decided to learn Mandarin so he could become friends with Chinese students. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The time is fast approaching when schools will chose to offer Mandarin instead of more traditional languages such as French, Latin or German.

In an age where trade with China is becoming increasingly important, more schools are considering offering Mandarin to their students.

According to the Ministry of Education the number of students learning Chinese in New Zealand schools has more than doubled since 2005.

Last year nearly 13,000 students took up the challenge.

While the majority of students are taking the subject at primary school, secondary schools are increasingly showing interest as well - something that is being encouraged by groups such as the Confucius Institute which takes principals to China to show them the possibilities the country offers.

After the most recent trip, late last year, many principals indicated they were keen to offer the subject and some have introduced it this year.

Epsom Girls Grammar principal Madeline Gunn said she had been considering offering Mandarin to her students for some time, but made the decision to start a Year 9 class this year, after the Confucius trip.

"I had the idea of wanting to do it but I guess the trip reinforced that, that I see it as really important that we offer that opportunity for our students because China is going to be so important for us."

Prime Minister John Key believes New Zealand's interaction with the Chinese economy is going to be much more important than having a great understanding of Latin or French in the future.

The Ministry of Education's secondary outcomes manager Tony Turnock said the curriculum now required all schools with students in Years 7-10 to move towards offering a second language.

That was probably part of the reason so many primary and intermediate schools are offering Mandarin - and it would probably result in more demand for it at a secondary level.

"I think we are seeing primary schools, because they don't have that pre-existing structure, respond to some of the demands for new languages.

"When you look at the very strong numbers that are starting to come through in that primary space I think that will encourage more parents to start asking the questions [at a secondary level] ... like 'do you offer Chinese because my child has been doing it at primary school'."

Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond said it was important schools catered to their community's needs. While not all communities would be interested in, or want Mandarin offered as a subject, many would and it would be up to schools to juggle those needs with the more traditional languages they already offered, he said.

Just say 'Ni hao' and new friendship is born


Eleven-year-old Benjamin Eastman decided to start learning Mandarin so he could become friends with Chinese students.

The Henderson North student, who has been taking Mandarin for the past two years, said it was great being able to learn another language.

"If someone comes from China and was in your classroom and if they didn't know much [English] and you wanted to become friends with him you could just say 'ni hao' [hello] and you could become friends with them."

Ben is one of dozens of students who've taken up the challenge at the West Auckland school which has offered Mandarin for the past six years.

Teacher Ian Cartwright runs lessons every Friday in his Year 5 and 6 class - - so whoever ends up in his class gets a taste of Mandarin.

Those who enjoy it can take a second option - a once-weekly free class open to any student in the school which started when a parent wanted to offer her services and was funded through the Chinese Embassy. She is now employed through the school.

Principal Irene Ogden, who visited China last year with a group of principals on a Confucius Institute trip, said parents could see the advantages of their children learning Mandarin and many encouraged it.

"The Chinese economy is very good so they think China will be a strong country so they want their children to learn one more language. They think they'll get a good benefit from learning another language.

Parent Rekha Dip's 9-year-old daughter Brinal Lilori is another student making the most of the opportunity. "She wanted to do it ... so I thought, why not? It might help her later, plus she enjoys it."

Brinal said she liked the classes because "I like learning new languages" and was keen to take it at high school and eventually visit China.

Mr Cartwright said most of his students who have the compulsory lessons also join the optional weekly lesson. By the end of a year, most have learned "a little bit of Mandarin and hopefully they want to take it on further when they go on to intermediate".

Mandarin teacher Yi Chen, funded through the Confucius Institute, said the aim was to get the students interested in the culture rather than making them fluent speakers.

"The language is not so important, it's the culture so they know the way we are doing things," she said.

"Those with enough interest in China, its values, culture and traditions, will normally follow through with the language later in life."

- NZ Herald

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