New Zealand's monolingualism could inhibit our chances of becoming a more inclusive society at home as well as a more globally responsive nation, according to AUT's Associate Professor Sharon Harvey.
Despite more than 160 languages being spoken in New Zealand, our public institutions continue to conduct their affairs mostly in English; Harvey, AUT's head of the School of Language and Culture, says lack of a coherent national policy means harnessing language strengths are not part of strategic planning at any level in New Zealand.
She believes that the globalised nature of contemporary society means multilingualism is of greater social, cultural or economical value than ever before.
"It helps us stand in the shoes of the other, to develop international competency and to operate effectively in a global society," she says.
Harvey says young people overseas are learning two and more languages: "Why are we short-changing New Zealand young people? Ideally, New Zealand students should be leaving secondary school with high level achievement in Maori, English and one other language. In as many cases as possible, one of these languages should be a students' home language."
She says language learning at secondary school is dropping at an unprecedented rate. Figures show 17,381 fewer students took subject languages at secondary school in 2015 (54,349) than in 2008 (71,730). These figures exclude Māori language which have also shown a decline: 26,339 students learned te reo Māori as a subject language in 2008 but only 21,977 students learned the language in 2015, a decrease of almost 17%.
This substantive decline began after the introduction of a new learning strand "Learning Languages" in the 2007 national curriculum, she says. "It was aimed at increasing language learning numbers but instead moved in the opposite direction. The shift has been due to a complex mix of factors; two of these may be the cost of resourcing language classes and the widespread perception that 'English is enough'.
"If the environment only places value on the English language, where is the motivation to do anything different?"
She would like to see a national languages policy that spans New Zealand society including trade and enterprise, research and development, immigration, labour, social development and education. Having a 'joined up' policy for languages in education means multilingual learners would have their home languages developed at school, alongside English, while monolingual learners would need to learn additional languages.
The Ministry of Education's Pacific Education Plan only mentions Pacific languages as a way to bridge Pasifika children into higher levels of English proficiency.
"Instead the education system should be aiming to consolidate and extend these children's Pasifika languages' proficiency while developing their English at the same time. It's not a zero sum game."
Japanese language study has dropped off significantly at secondary and tertiary level in recent years. Ryoko Oshima (a master's student supervised by Harvey) examined the reasons why students who were successful at Japanese at secondary level did not continue it in tertiary study.
"There were a range of reasons for this - how they felt about themselves as Japanese learners and institutional issues such as incompatible timetables and lack of continuity between secondary and tertiary teaching of the language."
Harvey says it's disappointing that students feel it is too difficult to continue with complex languages such as Japanese: "It's a hard language to learn but, if these students continue with Japanese at tertiary level for a few more years, they would have a far wider range of career options internationally."
Where figures warrant it, she believes languages commonly spoken in the community should be considered for local curricula, alongside Maori and English.
"Schools should be encouraged to teach the languages found in their communities. If they are allowed to make the decision around the best language to offer their students, it creates a system where language and culture is valued and offers schools the chance to meet the needs of the community."
"Students may have a high level of proficiency in Hindi or Mandarin but they will not be assessed and given credit for this at school. Moreover, Hindi-speaking students have no chance of learning their own language at school even though New Zealand needs Hindi speakers and it is the fourth most widely spoken language in New Zealand. There is no mandate for multilingual proficiency; the focus on English leads to increasing monolingualism."
* This story is part of a content partnership with AUT
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