Lincoln Tan makes an important, and worrying, assertion when he writes that the percentage of students learning an additional language in New Zealand's secondary schools is down to its lowest in over 80 years.

Tan quotes Graham Stoop, deputy secretary for student achievement at the Ministry of Education, who attributes this drop in numbers to students' choices, influenced by what they see will be most useful to them in the future.

In other words, language learning in schools is "demand led," and demand for languages is on the decline, apparently because language learning is perceived to add minimal value to young New Zealanders' futures.

It is not just students who make subject choices. Since language learning is not compulsory in New Zealand's schools, our young people's subject choices are effectively left in the hands of individual schools. When our school hierarchies do not necessarily perceive languages other than English as adding value, this perception has a trickle-down effect.


When we add to this a broader climate in which it can sometimes be perceived that English is the only language that New Zealanders need if they are to communicate with the rest of the world, we are left with the inevitability of declining numbers of students taking languages.

All of this appears to fly in the face of what is happening elsewhere in the world, and even of the rhetoric emanating from our own Education Ministry.

I am mindful of a conclusion reached by the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, a committee set up just over fifteen years ago to project the UK's needs for skills in languages other than English for the next fifty years - that is, up to 2050. Under the heading 'Languages for the next generation', the final report asserts that "in a world where bilingualism and plurilingualism are commonplace, monolingualism implies inflexibility, insensitivity and arrogance." In other words, "English alone is not enough."

These assertions are just as relevant to any country in which English is the majority language, including New Zealand. Our schools need to wake up to the reality that, contrary to adding minimal value to young New Zealanders' futures, learning a language other than English has significant value. Even the most basic attempts to communicate with others in their own languages are appreciated by the hearers, and quite literally open up a world of opportunities.

Additionally, the purpose of learning another language is not just to learn the language. It has to do with being confronted with, and having to come to terms with, what it means to be 'different' and 'other', and learning how to value, appreciate and relate to 'otherness'. In the New Zealand context, this makes learning an additional language an important way of realising the vision, values and key competencies that form the foundation of our school curriculum.

Our curriculum encourages students to value diversity of cultures, languages and heritages, equity, fairness, social justice and community, and to relate to a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. Languages open the door to achieving these laudable aims. This adds significant value to school languages programmes.

The release, in July last year, of the Ministry of Education's comprehensive "International Capabilities" report, along with a summary report sent to schools, underscores the significance of making our students internationally proficient.

The report stresses the importance of helping our students to act effectively and confidently in intercultural contexts. International capabilities are described as "the knowledge, skills, attitudes, dispositions and values that make up the key competencies that enable people to live, work, and learn across national and cultural boundaries."

Other terms the Ministry draws on are "global competence", "international-mindedness" and "cross-cultural competence". I cannot think of any better way of enhancing students' skills in these areas than learning an additional language. Schools do not appear to be seeing, and capitalising on, what language learning can add to our young people's international capabilities.

What is going to help here? A national languages policy may go some way towards addressing the languishing state of language learning in this country. Perhaps some level of compulsory language learning might help. Fundamentally, I think that making our schools and communities aware of the importance of languages and the 'value added' that learning a language can bring will go a long way.

I would not want to rob any of New Zealand's young people of the opportunity to learn an additional language. There is a clear message that needs to be sent. Let us counter the assumptions of inflexibility, insensitivity and arrogance that only speaking English communicates by encouraging our young people to learn an additional language.

Martin East is an associate professor and language teacher educator in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. He is also President of the New Zealand Association of Language Teachers.