The Asia New Zealand Foundation has welcomed cross-party support for a bill which could see children as young as 5 years old being taught a foreign language at school, as well as te reo Māori.

Executive director Simon Draper said about 80 per cent of parents wanted their child to learn a second language and the wide support for Nikki Kaye's bill would allow a good debate about it.

The National MP's bill, the Education (Strengthening Second language Learning in Primary and Intermediate Schools) Amendment Bill has got the support of Education Minister Chris Hipkins and the Labour caucus to get it to select committee. It also has the support of the Greens and Act.

Draper said that as well as a debate, the bill gave New Zealand a chance to make its own deliberate choices about language teaching.

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He said the reality was that when it came to Asian language teaching, it had been primarily determined by other Governments – for example how much Japan had put into the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme or (JET) how much the Chinese had put into the teaching of Mandarin.

"I think it is time that we decided as a country what languages we want to teach and how we teach them. This bill will give us a chance to own it ourselves rather than being reliant on others' funding."

In the decade to 2016 the number of New Zealanders learning an Asian language at secondary school had decreased 29 per cent, mainly due to fewer students learning Japanese.

While there had been an increase in Chinese, it had not offset the drop in Japanese teaching which had been the result of funding decisions in Japan.

"I don't think we are as Asia-savvy as we like to think we are."

The Asia New Zealand Foundation had long supported language teaching in its nearly 25 years "so we are really pleased to see it get a bit of consideration at Government level."

Asia New Zealand Foundation executive director Simon Draper. Photo / Dough Sherring
Asia New Zealand Foundation executive director Simon Draper. Photo / Dough Sherring

Kaye's bill would require the Government to identify 10 priority languages to be taught from Year 1 to 8 and commit to funding the teaching of them. According to Kaye they would include te reo Māori and New Zealand Sign Language, both official languages, as well as likely choices such as Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, French and Pacific languages.

School boards would decide which languages to teach. Kaye said it would increase the te reo Māori language learning as well as other languages.

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Hipkins said he saw it as a long-term project which could take more than three terms to implement. He was not certain about having a small number of languages to choose from but welcomed the chance to debate what was taught in schools.

An Auckland group which has already drawn up a strategy for language teaching in schools also welcomed the cross-party support to progress the bill.

Jeff Johnstone, spokesman for the Auckland Language Strategy Working Group, said the group wanted to make speaking a second language a normal part of growing up in New Zealand.

"Our collective vision as a group is for a multi-lingual Aotearoa New Zealand that benefits socially, culturally and economically from an increasing number of young New Zealanders communicating in more than one language."

It wanted to begin with te reo Māori.

There had been talk over many years about making language learning a core subject but it was always put off.

"It keeps on being put off for different reasons and we see there is potential to have a 15-year plan, to have a co-ordinated approach to languages in New Zealand that wouldn't break the bank and could be achievable."

The group's aim was to have all Year 1 students learning te reo Māori by 2020 and by 2033 having all secondary school graduates being able to converse in more than one language.