Should every Kiwi child learn a second language? The National Party is saying 'yes' in a controversial new private member's bill.

National's education spokeswoman Nikki Kaye will release a draft bill today that would require every primary and intermediate school to offer at least one second language from a list of at least 10 "national priority languages".

She wants to spark a national debate about how to change New Zealand's monolingual culture. Only 19 per cent of New Zealanders in the 2013 Census could speak more than one language, including only 4 per cent who spoke our second official language, Māori.

READ MORE: Monolingual no more: kids lead the way

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"The case for languages is really clear around cognitive ability," she said.

"We need to legislate for this, it's not an optional thing to provide that access to languages, and that is a big shift as a country."

Her bill, which would give legal teeth to a National Party policy unveiled in the party's election campaign opening last August, would dramatically ramp up what is already a trend towards offering more languages since a revised school curriculum in 2007 said schools should be "working towards" offering languages in Years 7 to 10.

The proportion of all primary and intermediate students learning a second language, in addition to English and Māori, has more than doubled from 13 per cent in the year 2000 to 29 per cent in 2016.

At least some study of te reo Māori has also become almost universal, increasing from 79 per cent of all primary and intermediate students in 2000 to 95 per cent.

However the number studying foreign languages in secondary schools has dropped from 24 per cent of students in 2000 to 19 per cent.

Kaye's bill would empower the Education Minister to issue a "national language policy" and to prescribe "a minimum of 10 national priority languages, which must include te reo Māori and NZ Sign Language".

When she first announced the policy in August, she said Mandarin, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean were "likely to be included".

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She is now calling for cross-party agreement on a long-term policy.

Nikki Kaye wants to build long-term cross-party support for a national languages policy. Photo supplied
Nikki Kaye wants to build long-term cross-party support for a national languages policy. Photo supplied

"We want to reach across parties. We realise this is not a short-term thing. In order to put the resources into this, you would need to build up to this over time," she said.

"My ideal would be that the government adopts the legislation or principles of effectively universal access to second language learning in schools."

However Labour's education policy did not include anything about foreign languages apart from supporting "community-based programmes" and reviewing funding for "schools that offer bilingual teaching in Pacific languages".

Its Māori policy proposed that all primary and intermediate students should have te reo Māori "integrated into their learning", and that every secondary school should offer Māori as an option, by 2025.

Only 390 of the country's 517 secondary schools offered Māori in 2016.

Labour's Pacific policy also promised to recognise Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands Māori, Niuean and Tokelauan as "official community languages" and to "enhance" their use in the education system.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins queries the cost of teaching languages in all primary schools. Photo supplied
Education Minister Chris Hipkins queries the cost of teaching languages in all primary schools. Photo supplied

Current Education Minister Chris Hipkins said last August that it would cost $117 million a year to pay for a language teacher in every primary school - far more than the $160 million that National proposed to spend on the policy over four years.

This week he said there were clear benefits to more students learning a second language, however, the Government's focus at this stage was on ensuring there were enough teachers for the subjects currently on offer.

"We've inherited critical and worsening teacher shortages across a range of subjects, including languages and addressing that is one of our top priorities."

While Hipkins said he welcomed any opportunity to "find genuine common cause with the Opposition" it had not yet raised the matter of second language learning with him.

NZ Principals Federation president Whetu Cormick slammed the policy at the time as "completely out of touch with the realities facing schools today".

"Teaching foreign languages, like Korean and Mandarin would be a great aspiration once we have addressed the issues of actually having teachers in front of the class in the first place, and sorted the mess that is our current special education funding,' he said.

Māngere schoolchildren Suialofaina Taula (left) and Veronika Troon-Smith are learning Tagalog via an online link with student tutors at Rosmini College. Photo / Simon Collins
Māngere schoolchildren Suialofaina Taula (left) and Veronika Troon-Smith are learning Tagalog via an online link with student tutors at Rosmini College. Photo / Simon Collins

Language experts also questioned the selection of languages, noting that National's list did not include Pacific languages or Hindi, the world's third most spoken language.

Kaye said she wanted to consult widely on her bill before putting it into the ballot for private member's bills.

She said debate would also be needed on practical details such as using language assistants from the community or web-based "communities of online learning (COOLs)" to teach languages, especially in smaller schools.

Top 10 languages in the world

1. Mandarin/Chinese -spoken by 14.3% of the world population

2. English 12.9%

3. Hindi/Urdu 7.2%

4. Spanish 6.9%

5. Arabic 5.6%

6. Bahasa Malaysian/Indonesian 3.7%

7. Russian 3.5%

8. Bengali 3.4%

9. Portuguese 3.0%

10. French 3.0%

Source: Ethnologue 2017 edition

Top 10 languages in NZ

1. English - spoken by 97.8% of NZ population old enough to speak

2. Māori 3.8%

3. Mandarin/Chinese 2.4%

4. Samoan 2.2%

5. Hindi/Urdu 1.8%

6. French 1.3%

7. Yue (Cantonese) 1.1%

8. German 0.9%

9. Tongan 0.8%

10. Tagalog (Philippines) 0.7%

Source: 2013 Census

Top 10 languages in NZ primary and intermediate schools (excluding English)

1. Māori - 95.3% of students learn at least some of this language

2. Chinese 10.4%

3. French 5.4%

4. Spanish 4.4%

5. Japanese 3.5%

6. German 1.3%

7. Samoan 0.9%

8. Tongan 0.2%

9. Cook Islands Māori 0.1%

10. Fijian 0.02%

Sources: Ministry of Education - Subject Enrolment and Māori Language in Education

Top 10 languages in NZ secondary schools (excluding English)

1. Māori - 8.1% of students

2. French 6.2%

3. Spanish 4.0%

4. Japanese 3.8%

5. Chinese 1.7%

6. German 1.3%

7. Samoan 0.8%

8. Latin 0.5%

9. Tongan 0.2%

10. Cook Islands Māori 0.1%

Source: Ministry of Education - Subject Enrolment