A University of Auckland-based, Beijing-backed institute is pulling out all the stops to achieve its target of a five-fold increase in the number of Mandarin language learners in New Zealand institutes.

Supported by radio advertising and doubling the number of language assistants from China, the Confucius Institute hopes to increase the number of Mandarin learners here to 50,000 by the year's end.

Last year, the institute placed eight assistants in New Zealand schools to promote the language - this year, that number will be 18.

Under the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement, up to 150 Mandarin assistants can work in New Zealand at any one time.

"We are very encouraged by a near 40 per cent increase in Kiwis learning Mandarin last year and will be doing much more to generate interest in the language this year," said institute director Nora Yao.

"I will expect a more significant growth, and even if we do not reach our target, I am confident we will get near there."

This year, 18 schools will be hosting the Chinese language assistants, whose jobs will be to fuel interest in Mandarin among students and train local teachers to teach the language.

China pays their travel costs and living allowances, while New Zealand covers insurance and accommodation.

"There will be a multiplier effect, because the services of the assistants are shared with schools neighbouring the hosting schools - so the number of schools getting a taste of Mandarin will be far more than just the 18," Ms Yao said.

Ministry of Education figures show that last year, 10,230 students in primary to high school levels were learning Mandarin, up from 7000 in 2007, for the first time overtaking Latin.

Last year, Prime Minister John Key said he wanted more students to learn Mandarin, and the Education Ministry has given schools for Year 7 to Year 10 students three years to prepare a second language option.

More than 94,000 primary and high school students in New Zealand learn a second language.

But the number of those who choose Mandarin still pales in comparison with other languages such as French, with 27,000, and 17,500 choosing Japanese. Spanish, German and Samoan are also more popular than Mandarin.