Children coming into Auckland primary schools are carrying an undiscovered treasure — the ability to speak more than one language. It has been a rare thing in New Zealand but the immigration wave of this century is making it much more common, especially in the city where most migrants are settling.
Our Sunday Insight feature today presents the astonishing variety of languages spoken in many parts of Auckland when the latest census was taken in 2013. Not only Mandarin and other Chinese languages but Hindi, the main language of India; Korean, Afrikaans and Tagalog of the Philippines, have taken their place alongside Samoan and Tongan as the "second language" of some areas.
Within the homes of the migrants of course they are the first language and will remain as their children become more conversant in English at school. Their teachers' first task may be to ensure the children's English is up to the mark but it is to be hoped they are not neglecting the native language of their new charges.
Making use of multilingualism in the classroom would not just benefit the native speakers of foreign languages, it would provide all the class with a valuable exposure to them. That would be particularly useful at primary school where children are at their most educative age. Their minds are capable of absorbing languages in a way they will not as they get older.
Like most English-speaking countries, New Zealand has not put much effort into learning other languages. Children do not usually study one until they reach secondary school, and then it is usually optional. We tell ourselves that English is so widely spoken in the modern world that no other language is needed for travel or business abroad, and that is generally true.
But languages broaden the mind. None, including English, has words for every shade of meaning in human thought and experience. Every language will reward its learners with expressions that are richer than they can be in translation.
It is thanks to Maori that we realise language is a treasure. Taonga is a richer word, conveying the fact that language is a cultural creation, worth keeping for that reason alone. Te Reo is the second language all our children should meet but their minds can absorb more.
Schools will need the aid of migrant communities to make the most of the multilingualism in our midst. They should seize the opportunity while we have it. Immigration waves come and go. Second and subsequent generations find it harder to maintain their own language. We should make sure they can.