By: Simon Collins
Sala Agalava, a 12-year-old student at Māngere Central School, is learning the Tagalog language of the Philippines “because I watched a lot of Tagalog films”.
Betsy Fifita, aged 9, is learning the language “because my dad was a missionary in the Philippines”.
Tuainekore Poila, 13, is learning it just because she “wanted to have a go at another language”, and Māngere Central offered the opportunity through a national virtual learning network, VLN Primary.
“Before this year I never learnt any new languages, so it was an honour to be chosen to be in VLN,” Tuainekore says.
None of the 15 students learning Tagalog at Māngere are Filipino, but their decision to learn the language – and the fact that Sala and Betsy were already familiar with the culture – shows how fast our once-monolingual country is changing.
Only one in nine (11 per cent) of our oldest citizens aged 65-plus could speak more than one language in the 2013 Census, but among children aged 5 to 14 it was one in six (16.8 per cent).
This is mainly because of increased migration from non-English-speaking countries since our immigration laws were liberalised 30 years ago. Sala watched those Tagalog movies in Samoa and speaks Samoan; Betsy was born in the United States and speaks Tongan; Tuainekore was born on Pukapuka Island and speaks Cook Islands Māori.
Our primary schools have responded with a dramatic increase in the numbers learning at least the basics of foreign languages at school.
At the turn of the century in the year 2000, 13 per cent of primary and intermediate students were learning another language in addition to English and te reo Māori. The biggest numbers were in Japanese (5 per cent), French and Spanish (both 3 per cent).
By 2016, numbers had more than doubled to 29 per cent. Chinese is now the most popular (10 per cent), still followed by French (5 per cent) and Spanish (4 per cent), with Japanese dropping to 3.5 per cent.
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 in older age groups, enthusiasm for languages is ebbing. Numbers studying foreign languages have dropped from 24 per cent of secondary school students in 2000 to 19 per cent.
More high-school students are studying Spanish (up from 1 to 4 per cent) and Chinese (up from 0.5 to 2 per cent).
But these gains have been more than offset by steep falls in Japanese (down from 8 to 4 per cent), French (down from 9 to 6 per cent) and German (down from 3 to 1 per cent).
And at tertiary level, foreign languages have shrunk from just 0.92 per cent of domestic fulltime-equivalent students in 2008 to a vanishingly-low 0.55 per cent in 2016.
Young people studying te reo Māori have held steady at 8 per cent of secondary school students, and have risen slightly from 3 per cent to 4 per cent of domestic tertiary students. But the overall picture is that the linguistic diversity of our youngest children often fizzles out as they get older.
“Very often students don’t perceive the relevance of having to learn a language,” says Dr Martin East, who trains language teachers for schools at Auckland University.
“There can also be a perception in the senior school that languages are difficult.
“There are similar issues coming through in tertiary. Students are obviously wanting to make choices based on what they perceive is going to get them the best job at the end, and they are not necessarily seeing that languages are part of it.”
For years, a few people have been trying to change this. The Human Rights Commission developed a language policy in 2008 that advocates giving all New Zealanders a chance to learn te reo Māori and NZ Sign Language, supporting Pacific and other migrants to learn their heritage languages, and encouraging Kiwis to study global languages.
Auckland Council’s educational arm Comet Auckland led work on an Auckland languages strategy in 2015 which aims to support te reo and Sign Language and all other languages spoken in the city to “promote Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland as a multilingual city“.
A Royal Society paper in 2013 offered four research-based arguments for learning languages.
First, it said, language and culture are central to a healthy personal identity. A Canadian study found lower suicide rates among indigenous people in places where most people spoke the indigenous languages.
Second, learning another language creates new linkages in the brain which may improve attention and working memory. Some studies have found that it delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Third, there is evidence that students who learn another language also do better in their own language and in maths.
And fourth, learning someone’s language helps if you are trying to sell them something, either in their own country or when they visit New Zealand for tourism, business or study. Not sharing a common language is a “barrier to trade”.
This last issue matters much more now that trade is a much bigger part of the world economy. The sum of exports and imports has roughly trebled since World War II from 20 per cent to 60 per cent of global output.
Investment has become globalised since exchange controls were abolished 30 years ago. Just over half of Kiwisaver funds are invested overseas, and just over half of New Zealand’s capital stock is owned by foreigners.
Lower airfares have hugely increased both travel and migration. Foreign visitor arrivals in New Zealand have almost quadrupled from 1m in 1990 to 3.8m in 2017, and the overseas-born share of our population has risen from 17 per cent to 25 per cent.
Facebook, YouTube and other social media have also opened up the world for young people like Sala. Children often watch YouTube videos oblivious to the languages being used.
East says the new curriculum adopted for NZ schools in 2007 has spurred the growth in language teaching in intermediate and early secondary years with a provision stating: “All schools with students in years 7–10 should be working towards offering students opportunities for learning a second or subsequent language.”
“Schools are totally free to choose which languages they wish to promote, but the onus is on the schools to offer a language programme,” he says.
He says the growth of Chinese has been partly due to support from the Chinese Government’s Confucius Institute, which started with two Mandarin language assistants in 2009 and now has 147 in schools throughout the country.
Māngere Central deputy principal Lorraine Makutu says learning another language is compulsory for her students in years 7 and 8.
“We are trying to contribute to these kids because a lot of them don’t go outside the country unless they are going back to the islands,” she says. “We are trying to open up their world and give them more opportunities.”
As well as Tagalog, students can choose te reo Māori, NZ Sign Language, Cook Islands Māori, Samoan, Tongan, Niuean, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
“We also do Bahasa [Indonesian] if the students choose it, not this year,” Makutu says. Māngere Central has two “sister schools” in Bali which Makutu has visited, and she teaches basic Bahasa herself.
For Tagalog, the Māngere students link up via VLN Primary with Filipino students at Rosmini College in Takapuna who have created a curriculum and teach it online as part of the college ethnic of “service learning”.
Geoff Wood, a health teacher at Rosmini who coordinates the VLN classes, says that as well as teaching non-Filipinos like those at Māngere, the Rosmini boys teach Filipino children and others at schools in Thames, Taranaki, South Otago and on Great Barrier Island.
“There are about 10,000 Filipino students in NZ schools. No one is doing anything for them, and many of these children are isolated from their language and culture,” he says.
Anna Fourie, a Southern Africa-born teacher at tiny sole-charge Ohura Valley School in the King Country, reached out to VLN Primary to source te reo Māori lessons for her students – and found that she could also contribute to others because she speaks Afrikaans.
“I’ve had various students – quite a few NZ students who find it quite interesting, but most of the students have some connection, whether it is parents or grandparents,” she says.
VLN Primary e-principal Rachel Whalley says the school had 870 learners in 2017. More than half learned te reo Māori, but others learned Afrikaans, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog and other subjects such as astronomy and programming.
Her husband Rick Whalley started the school when he was at remote Pitt Island School in the Chatham Islands, and the couple now run it from their home near Whakatane.
The school also has teachers available to teach Arabic, Hindi, Urdu and other languages if there is enough demand. But so far Rachel Whalley has not been able to find a Bahasa teacher to help Lorraine Makutu at Māngere.
“We are trying to find, through VLN Primary, a teacher who is able to do what the Rosmini boys do and teach the language, because Indonesia is our closest Asian country,” Makutu says.
Choosing which language to learn becomes even more important at secondary school, where it involves serious study, not just basic words. But the languages available in NZ schools owe more to history than to modern demographics or trade.
Bahasa Indonesian is available only in unit standards, which don’t count towards University Entrance – a likely reason why only one student in the entire country took it for NCEA in 2015, and none in 2016.
The world’s third-most-spoken language Hindi/Urdu is not available at all. Nor are Arabic, Russian, Bengali or Portuguese.
Of the top 10 languages spoken in New Zealand, seven are NCEA subjects, in numerical order from the 2013 Census: English, Māori, Chinese, Samoan, French, German and the most recent addition, Tongan.
But again Hindi, our fifth-most-spoken language, misses out, along with Yue or Cantonese (seventh) and Tagalog (10th).
Papatoetoe High School, where ethnic-Indian students make up 36 per cent of the roll, is believed to be the only school teaching Hindi. It has offered Hindi in Years 9 and 10 since 2011, with 20 Year 9 students in 2016, but teacher Aneeta Bidesi says there were only enough students to make up a Year 10 class in two years.
“Our Indian parents are really academic-minded. If they have a choice, they will always choose a subject that is going to help their children later on towards NCEA,” she says.
Her students are mostly from Fiji Indian families where the children can speak Hindi but have never learnt to read or write it.
Prateek Kumar, 14, sings traditional Hindi songs which his father composes and says he would love to take the language for NCEA if it was available.
Anisha Devi, 13, has lived in New Zealand since she was 2 and would also keep studying Hindi if she could.
“I want to speak it fluently,” she says. “I also want to teach my younger sister because she was born here and at home we speak in English.”
The Hindi Language and Culture Trust, which is based at the school, made a submission to the former Government last May to include Hindi in the school curriculum, and president Satya Dutt is now preparing a submission to the new Labour Government.
Asked for the Ministry of Education’s position, deputy secretary Ellen MacGregor-Reid points to an Asian Language Learning in Schools programme set up by former Education Minister Hekia Parata in 2014 with $10m over five years to encourage schools to share Asian language teachers and resources.
But the two funding rounds so far have supported only the three Asian languages with NCEA achievement standards: Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
The National Party promised in the recent election to make a second language available at every primary school, with $160m over four years for more language teachers and resources.
Labour promised more support for Pacific languages and Sign Language.
But if New Zealanders are going to become truly multilingual, the driving force will likely have to be grassroots interest.
“What I love about this is that when the kids find something really interesting, they will go in their own time and try and find out a bit more about it,” says Lorraine Makutu.
One of her students, NZ-born Niuean Suialofaina Taula, 11, is as interested in the Philippines as she is in its language.
“I picked Tagalog because I wanted to learn how to speak Tagalog, and I also wanted to learn about the country,” she says. “It’s part of the Ring of Fire.”
Source: NZ Herald