Public support strong for more Mandarin classes but uptake poor given its importance to our trading future.

Nearly half of Kiwis who want schoolchildren to learn a foreign language pick Chinese as the language to learn, according to a survey.

Eight in 10 New Zealanders told researchers for an Asia New Zealand Foundation study that schoolchildren should learn languages other than English. Nearly half of those, or 49 per cent, said students should learn Mandarin.

However, the report found a "considerable gap" between the respondents' preferences and the numbers of language learners in secondary schools.

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Just 4218 secondary school students were enrolled to learn Chinese last year, a distant fourth in foreign languages behind French (20,478), Japanese (11,888) and Spanish (11,573).

The survey found some New Zealanders were opposed to schools teaching Chinese, which researchers said stemmed from their belief that Chinese migrants should learn English rather than New Zealanders learn their language.

"I don't think that learning the Chinese language is important for New Zealand children ... there are far more important life matters to be educated on," said a respondent identified in the report as a Pakeha man from Auckland aged in his 50s.

"It is up to migrants to learn New Zealand's first language."

Overall, Ministry of Education figures show the percentage of secondary school language learners to be the lowest since 1933.

Ministry of Education head of student achievement, Dr Graham Stoop, said the drop in language enrolments was because students no longer saw languages as important.

"Schools offer languages students want to learn," Dr Stoop said.

Calls for an introduction of a national language policy in New Zealand were made more than 20 years ago, however there is still no national language policy and learning a foreign language is not compulsory in schools.

Massey University associate professor Henry Chung, a specialist in China marketing, said not prioritising language learning could be detrimental to New Zealand.

He believed that in a "modern globalised economy", international languages — especially Chinese — were possibly the "most important" subjects students should be learning to ensure a better future.

"Do not forget that there are more than 1.4 billion people, or a quarter of the world's population, speaking this language, and the Chinese influence is increasing almost on a daily basis," Professor Chung said.

"To compete effectively in the Chinese markets, we need to understand its roots first and Chinese language is the first and most important step towards this understanding."

Professor Brigid Heywood, chairwoman of the Sasakawa Fellowship Fund for Japanese Education, wrote in a 2013 report that "the resolutely monolingual 'English is all we need' attitude of many New Zealanders" could possibly be a cause for the drop in Japanese learners.

Of the commonly taught international languages at secondary schools, only Chinese and Spanish are not in decline.

The Asian Language Learning in Schools programme — a $10 million contestable fund over the next five years to support teaching of Mandarin, Japanese and Korean — was launched by the Government last year. It was set up because of the drop in numbers of students learning these languages. China, Japan and South Korea all rank among New Zealand's top five trading partners.

The number of secondary schools offering the languages of these countries has fallen significantly. In 2013, just two secondary schools offered Korean, 40 offered Mandarin and 160 offered Japanese.

Asia New Zealand Foundation Chairman John Luxton said the decline was concerning.

"As a trading nation we are fortunate to have English and Maori as two of the official languages of New Zealand, but we would get a better understanding of cultures of our marketplace if more New Zealanders spoke their languages," Mr Luxton said.

The Sasakawa Fellowship Fund was started at Massey University in 1995 with an endowment fund of US$1.5 million donated by the Nippon Foundation, and the China-backed Confucius Institute was launched in 2007 at the University of Auckland.

Despite the efforts, Japanese learners continued to decline in New Zealand over a decade where overseas learners elsewhere increased.

"The importance of Japanese and other Asian languages is frequently signalled in the media and in ministerial documents," authors of a Sasakawa Fellowship Fund 2013 study of the decline said. "However, there is a mismatch between what is said at this level and what actually appears in terms of policy directives and implementation."

This year, the Confucius Institute brought in 42 Mandarin language assistants to help schools at both primary and secondary levels.

Institute manager Janine Chin said that the scheme, along with other efforts to promote Chinese language and culture, had worked well at primary school, but the institute still faced an "uphill challenge" to get secondary schools interested.

"Many schools do not have the funds to employ a specialist Mandarin language teacher and few principals are prepared to take the risk to employ one because they are unsure of what the demand for the language will be like," Ms Chin said.

"Historically it has been European languages ... taught at secondary schools, and they can't just replace those teachers, even though they might want to introduce Chinese."