Eight years ago, a new primary and secondary school curriculum spoke glowingly of the benefits of knowing another language. In that, it was absolutely correct. Yet the same document did not go so far as to offer much of an incentive for pupils to take that step. Instead, it emphasised flexibility and encouraged schools to reflect the nature of their communities. The latter prompted the introduction of Pacific languages in some schools. Overall, however, its impact has been far more problematic.
The percentage of children learning a second language in our secondary schools has dropped to its lowest in more than 80 years. In 2014, it encompassed just 20.3 per cent of pupils. At a peak in 1963, that figure was close to 40 per cent. Alarmingly, the downward trend has been particularly evident since 2008, when one in four studied an additional language.
The new curriculum could be but one of a number of factors. Historically, New Zealanders have seldom felt the need for a second language, given that English is universally spoken and regarded as the international language. Over the past few years, its prevalence on the internet has probably underlined that sentiment.
But not studying another language leaves a gap in a person's education that has both tangible and intangible strands. A modern globalised economy demands a second language, especially in countries dependent on international trade. Most countries recognise as much, and children generally emerge from European and Asian schools proficient in two or three languages.
In New Zealand's case, the obvious choice is Chinese. But whatever language is selected, the reason to study it does not end there. It will be more than a tool of communication in that it will offer an insight into how another people think. It will also provide a treasure trove of words and concepts that have no precise equivalent in English. The benefit, therefore, is to the individual and the country.
Such thinking informed a 2003 Ministry of Education curriculum review that proposed all pupils should start learning a second language before they entered secondary school. It was not taken up. Today, the view of the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, is that while all pupils should consider learning another language, it is up to pupils and parents to decide what subjects they pursue.
However, an acknowledgement that such an approach may not be producing an optimum outcome was evident in the Government's decision last year to start an Asian Learning in Schools programme. This $10 million contestable fund will support the teaching of Mandarin, Japanese and Korean over the next five years. That is welcome, but more than piecemeal intervention is required.
A comprehensive national language policy that encourages the teaching and learning of a second language needs to be put in place. If not, the drawbacks of a predominantly monolingual society will become apparent all too soon.