Chinese language learning in New Zealand secondary schools is way out of step with the country's growing trade and cultural relationships with China - the world's biggest economy.
A New Zealand China Council report has revealed that, for every $1 million of New Zealand's exports to China, just two students are learning Chinese - compared with 63 for French, 31 for Spanish, 17 for German and 10 for Japanese.
Based on statistics produced by New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER), 4218 secondary school students studied Chinese last year compared with more than 20,000 who studied French.
These Chinese language students were spread among 82 secondary schools, whereas Spanish was taught at 160 schools and French at 215 schools.
"China is our most important trading partner, our largest source of (international) students and second biggest source of tourists," says NZ China Council executive director, Pat English.
"There is an economic need to have more Kiwis communicating and understanding China in a cultural context. Chinese now make up a large and growing percentage of New Zealand's population, so we need to lift our game.
"We understand the importance of increasing our pool of Chinese speakers. Research from the Asia New Zealand Foundation shows a clear preference for school children to learn Chinese compared with other non-English languages, but enrolment figures show our language acquisition levels are clearly out of synch with these expectations."
The foundation's survey found that 83 per cent of New Zealanders were in favour of learning a second language in school, and a majority 49 per cent of respondents said children in schools should learn Chinese.
English says German, Spanish, Japanese and Maori enrolments are consistent with the relative weight placed by the survey respondents. But French is taught more frequently than surveyed importance (by 10,000 compared with other languages v current enrolment of 20,478) and Chinese is significantly under-taught (by 25,000 v current enrolment of 4218). "The relative mismatches are stark when we consider Spanish to Chinese language teaching. Attitudes are 2.7 times in favour of Chinese (49 per cent to 18 per cent) but secondary school enrolments are 2.7 times in favour of Spanish (11,573 enrolments v 4218 Chinese).
"Let's look at languages where there is a demand in relation to future employment, our economic future and cultural diversity," English says.
The report, titled A Crisis of Complacency, says "for the first time in our history, we are dependent on a non-English speaking country for our long term economic wellbeing - China is now our largest merchandise trading partner."
New Zealand's exports to China have increased from $0.5 billion in 1994 to more than $10 billion in 2014 - matched by a similar amount of imports. There were nearly 200,000 Chinese visitors/tourists to New Zealand in 2014, second only to Australia, and China is New Zealand's biggest source of international students.
A total of 24,268 international fee-paying students from China studied here in Trimester 2 of 2014, making up 28.4 per cent of all enrolments.
Many Chinese speak English and between 300,000 and 400,000 have graduated from New Zealand education institutions. But English says "if you are in China doing business, there are still only a very small percentage speaking English relative to the size of the population.
"In senior management of companies and organisations in China, far fewer speak English. So if you want to communicate directly with the decision maker, isn't it better to speak their language and understand their culture?" asks English.
"We can't just keep relying on others to do our translating for us, or for them to speak English. Language is a key to understanding business culture, so we can make far greater gains and improve our economic position if we truly understand who it is we are dealing with and how better to manage the relationship." The increase in New Zealand students learning Chinese is being driven largely at the primary and intermediate level. Primary school enrolments increased from 18,754 in 2013 to 24,143 in 2014 - a jump of 26 per cent.
The Confucius Institute, with branches in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, has an active programme of placing native speaking Mandarin language assistants (MLAs) from China in New Zealand schools.
Last year there were more than 100 MLAs teaching at 250 schools across the country - 44 in Auckland, 38 in Wellington and 25 in Christchurch.
We can't just keep relying on others to do our translating for us, or for them to speak English. Language is a key to understanding business culture.
The report reveals: If the current rate of primary school students carry on and study Chinese at secondary school, then the demand will increase to 24,000 by 2021. The number of secondary schools presently offering Chinese language is low and will need to increase significantly to cope with this demand.
English says schools have limited resources and if there are language studies already in place, such as French, Spanish and Japanese, then it's harder for other languages to gain entry. "As the figures show, we are not linking our investments in language to our cultural and economic needs. These factors should be taken into consideration in a review of language studies in New Zealand. A component of the review should be needs based," he says.
"New Zealand must increase the number of students learning Chinese at the post-primary level. If we remain complacent, we risk the opportunity to build on our successful bilateral trade, tourism and educational linkages.
"We also risk the opportunity to equip future generations of New Zealanders and make the most of our economic relationship with China," English says.
Martin East, president of the New Zealand Association of Language Teachers, says it's important for New Zealanders to embrace a second language. "We are seeing an increasing interest from schools in taking up Chinese. It's still at an early stage but we are seeing steps in the right direction. China is strategically important and Chinese is a logical choice."
He says there is a growing number of intermediate schools teaching Chinese but the take-up is still low at the secondary school level. Often it comes down to resourcing. There is a perception that Chinese is difficult to learn and schools will have to increase their staff numbers to teach Chinese effectively.
East says the Government was aware of the situation and has established the Asian Language Learning in Schools (ALLiS) programme, which has a $10 million contestable fund to support teaching of Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean in state and state-integrated schools.
The aim is to strengthen the language learning pathway from primary through to secondary schools. The fund encourages greater collaboration amongs schools in partnership with external Asian language and cultural organisations.
The first round of funding was conducted at the end of last year, and the second round opens in August.