Head of the School of Language and Culture at Auckland University of Technology, SHARON HARVEY says we need to think carefully about which languages we teach in our schools and why.
National’s election promise of $160m for language learning in schools has the potential to completely transform language learning in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This is the largest injection of funding into the languages learning area ever and if spent well could see young New Zealanders in the future finishing school with at least one, maybe two other languages that they can speak to a high level of proficiency. However, the devil is in the detail, not the least of which is the question of which languages are taught in schools and why.
Future governments should prioritise Māori as core learning in the curriculum so that children leave school with a high proficiency in Māori, alongside English, then children should learn one other language while at school. This could be their community language (like Somali or Samoan), a major trade language (like Mandarin or Japanese) or New Zealand’s other official language, NZ Sign Language.
Some of the many issues that need to be considered if this funding becomes available are:
- Professional development initiatives for teachers. Attention must be focused on the training of New Zealand teachers so that they have increasingly higher levels of proficiency in the language/s they are teaching and they have specialist training in language pedagogy.
- Pacific languages. These did not figure in National’s announcement but it is vital they are readily available in the education system, at least for Pasifika students and probably for others as well. Samoan and Tongan are significant community languages, while the languages of New Zealand’s realm countries (Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau) require a large amount of effort to stem their rapid decline.
- Teaching approaches. Teaching languages through educational content (Content and Languages Integrated Learning – CLIL) rather than as ‘add ons’ in one or two hours a week should be the way forward. As an example, children could have the option to do PE in Samoan, maths and social studies in Māori and the rest of their curriculum in English.
- Extension of funding to secondary schools. Secondary school language learning numbers have been dropping inexorably for a number of years. More needs to be done to make languages accessible at secondary school, particularly if more students are transitioning through from primary.
- Attention to pathways and transition points. In many parts of New Zealand young people are not able to continue learning the language they learned at primary school when they go to intermediate, secondary school or university. More needs to be done to ensure coherent language learning pathways across the whole education system.
- Maximising the languages children start school with. Ideally, children should be assessed for all their languages (their plurilingual repertoires, not just English) when they start school and where possible schools should support and extend children’s home languages over the course of their education.
- The method of allocating funding. Contestability needs to be avoided as it results in uneven distribution of funding geographically, socioeconomically, and ethnically.
The good news is that with the level of funding that has been announced all these things can be addressed to radically improve language learning and raise levels of multilingualism in Aotearoa/New Zealand.