The Auckland University-based Confucius Institute is banking on a pool of new language assistants to help reach its goal of having 50,000 Kiwis learning Mandarin in schools by next year.

The institute, supported by the Chinese Government, was established in 2007 to make Mandarin the foreign language of choice in NZ. Its popularity continues to lag behind others such as French and Japanese.

Eight Mandarin-language assistants - all women in their 20s - were brought from China and placed at schools in Auckland, Rotorua and Wellington this month to help promote interest in the language.

They will assist teaching and learning Mandarin in schools such as St Peter's College, Westlake Boys' High School, Henderson Intermediate and Owairoa School in Howick for the rest of this academic year.

"We really hope they can bring fresh interest among Kiwi students to learn Mandarin," said Dr Bing Zhou, the deputy director of Confucius Institute.

Ministry of Education figures show only about 2000 students in secondary schools are studying Mandarin as a subject, compared with 27,000 taking French and 17,500 Japanese.

"Unlike Japanese and French, Mandarin as a second language is still new to many Kiwis and we have to seize every opportunity if we want to achieve our 50,000 target," Dr Zhou said.

The Mandarin language assistants came as a result of the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement, under which up to 150 Mandarin language assistants can work in New Zealand.

The institute lists its assistants' expected contributions to include "providing opportunities for students to hear a young native speaker stimulating genuine classroom communications" and "enable more students to take part in individual conversations".

At Westlake Boys' High School, head of languages Fiona Edwards said the presence of 24-year-old Mandarin language assistant Jane Chen was already having an effect.

"It's added a new dimension to language learning, and our boys are so eager to greet her in Mandarin."

About 200 Westlake Boys students take Chinese, but Miss Chen hopes to increase the number sharply by telling others of the economic benefits of learning Mandarin.

"With the rise of China, Mandarin is becoming increasingly important in many areas of people's lives everywhere," she said.

"I think many New Zealand students still don't know how much Mandarin can help them in getting jobs or with their businesses."

China pays the travel costs and living allowances for the language assistants, and New Zealand supports them with insurance and accommodation.

Confucius Institute acting director Gillian Eadie says having ministries of education in China and New Zealand supporting the initiative "signals the growing importance being placed on Chinese language in our schools".