Young New Zealanders are at a huge disadvantage to Australian and European students because so few are learning a second or third language, a former chief adviser to the Prime Minister says.
Sir Maarten Wevers, former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, said New Zealanders were not being equipped for an increasingly globalised world because there had been no coherent strategy to encourage bilingualism or multilingualism in the last 25 years.
He was responding to a Royal Society of New Zealand paper released yesterday, which said New Zealanders now spoke 160 languages but lacked a plan to harness the social and economic benefits of multilingualism.
Sir Maarten, a fluent Japanese speaker, said: "If you go to a German, French, Dutch or Belgian school, the idea that you could go by learning your own language just wouldn't pass muster. It's an essential life skill."
He had been interested in a national-level languages policy since working at the Beehive in the 1990s, but said no government had invested in languages since then.
"There hasn't been a sharp enough focus on it. There's no ownership of the issue. The Aussies have had a policy for 20 years. We've still got a vacuum as far as I can see.
"If we want young New Zealanders to be well equipped in the modern world, this is what we need to do."
He suggested making a list of priority languages - such as Mandarin - and emphasising them in schools.
Sir Maarten said languages should be taught only by native speakers or teachers who had passed "a very high-level proficiency test".
This would require increased funding by the Ministry of Education, but he believed it would easily be paid off by the social, economic, educational and health benefits of multilingualism.
The Royal Society paper indicated that moving to a bilingual education system would require a 4-5 per cent increase in funding per student each year, with this cost falling over time.
The paper also suggested communication barriers could cost nations billions of dollars in lost trade.
It cited a British study which said unrealised gains to the UK economy caused by language problems could total $18 billion a year.
It said small to medium enterprises suffered most from limited language capabilities in terms of entering foreign markets - a finding highly relevant to New Zealand because of its high proportion of SMEs.
Asia New Zealand Foundation executive director John McKinnon said yesterday that all New Zealand children should be given the chance to learn an Asian language if the country was to succeed internationally.
He noted that Chinese studies had grown steadily in the last decade, but few schools offered it and other key languages were not taught at all.
• Introduced national languages policy 20 years ago.
• Considering Asian language instruction for students at all school levels.
• Has compulsory second language learning in high school, and may make second language compulsory from age 7.
• Chinese (Mandarin) to be taught in every school from 2020.
• No national-level languages policy.
• Languages encouraged but not compulsory at all levels, but Asian languages not offered at all schools.