Calder At Large
Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Bilingualism great, if you've time

Proficiency in languages opens many doors but needs maintenance - the ultimate 'use it or lose it'.

Elisabeth Diaz teaches in French to year four, five and six students at Richmond Road School in Ponsonby. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Elisabeth Diaz teaches in French to year four, five and six students at Richmond Road School in Ponsonby. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The 23 children in the classroom at Richmond Road School in Ponsonby are sitting on the mat, just like the kids in any other primary class. But there's a significant difference: the teacher, Vesna Nikolic-Ivanovic, runs the class entirely in French.

When attention wanders, she gets the kids to imitate her as she mimes "un chapeau de reflexion" ("a thinking cap"), as a signal to settle into silence.

The children are slightly awed by the stranger in their midst, though when he gives a cheery "Bonjour la classe!", they reply ("Bonjour, Monsieur Peter") in the mooing chorus we all remember.

The class is what's called an immersion unit, which is to say that the kids who go there don't just learn French: they learn everything in French. For three days of the week, it's the medium of instruction for their entire curriculum - maths, science, art; the other two days it's English.

The parents who seek out this unit have a French connection - a Francophone parent or grandparent, say, and the 5-year-olds arrive with a working understanding of French.

Some see it as the template for the future. Among them is Sir Maarten Wevers, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Reacting in the Herald last month to a Royal Society paper Languages in Aotearoa New Zealand, he lamented how few of us learn a second or third language. Sir Maarten, who is the son of Dutch immigrants and speaks fluent Japanese, reckons we lag behind Australians and Europeans and wants us to make a list of "priority languages" such as Mandarin, and emphasise them in schools.

As someone who excelled in languages at school, did a degree in German and achieved near-fluency in Spanish while living in South America, I found his comments interesting. I'll bet that most of the boys who sat with me through five periods of French a week for seven years wouldn't now be able to ask the time in Paris much less discuss the merits of Woody Allen or EU membership.

Sir Maarten seems to dream of a nation of Mandarin speakers blazing trails for us into the world's fastest-growing economy. Yet he, of all people, should know how idle that dream is.

I'm assuming he grew up speaking Dutch at home - an enormous advantage since bilingual kids learn a third language far more easily than monolingual kids learn a second. But even so, he told the Herald when he retired, he achieved his fluency by learning, two students to one tutor, six hours a day for two years - while living in Japan. That is as total as total immersion gets, and it's a far cry from primary school kids getting four 30-minute spells of Mandarin a week for a couple of years, while living in a world where they never hear the language.

Proficiency in language is the ultimate demonstration of the axiom that you "use it or lose it", says Professor Alan Kirkness, who taught me German. "The Swedes and the Dutch who speak excellent English are constantly surrounded by English-language media, such as television and films.

"Acquisition is one thing; maintenance quite another."

John McCaffery, a senor lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland agrees: "Languages are only useful if you are in a situation where you can use them. It's problematic if people keep speaking as if we have programmes that would actually deliver fluency or even ability in the language."

Bilingual education - at Richmond Road and in 33 Samoan-language pilot programmes that McCaffery is following - is demonstrably effective.

"There is extensive research on this and the European Union has switched from the teaching of language as a subject. If you are not experiencing the curriculum through a language, it is never going to be functionally of any use to you and it is that research that our ministry doesn't want to know about. They have never even visited the programme or asked for the research.

"If you are going to do it, you might as well do it well. The world has shifted to that model and New Zealand is so far behind the play."

As for our bilingual global ambassadors, Kirkness, McCaffery and the Royal Society all agree: we already have them.

McCaffery: "There are many Chinese and Korean speakers living here who speak excellent English. If we need go-betweens with Asia, they are more likely to be effective in building relationships than people starting from scratch. They understand the culture and they already have links there."

- NZ Herald

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