Te reo and Mandarin
it doesn't have to be either/or

Learning Mandarin, or any other foreign language, does not have to come at the expense of learning te reo Māori, say three principals.

Waikirikiri School acting principal Lisa Olsen-Brown talks about introducing Mandarin to students learning te reo

Recently, the Asia New Zealand Foundation visited Waikirikiri School and Ilminster Intermediate in Gisborne, and Patea Area School in Taranaki. The schools were holding Chinese language and culture days to celebrate the contributions of the schools’ MLAs. The schools held the days with the assistance of Foundation grants.

Waikirikiri School acting principal Lisa Olsen-Brown says as a dual-stream kura with immersion and bilingual units, tamariki at the school already have a sound understanding of their own reo and culture.

She says because of this grounding, learning a third language and about a third culture further contributes towards students’ understanding of themselves.

“We’re of the belief that if you have an understanding of other cultures outside of your own, you have a deeper appreciation of your own culture,” says Olsen-Brown.

Because the children have acquired language acquisition skills through learning te reo as their second language, they have taken to learning Mandarin with ease, Olsen-Brown says.

“I’ve been actually really impressed at how our tamariki have been able to pick up the language quite quickly. They’ve really embraced the whole kaupapa, and it has been something that’s absolutely new to them and they’ve been really enthusiastic about it.”

Ilminster Intermediate principal Peter Ferris says having the MLAs in the classroom is more than just about language learning.

“The MLA actually provided us with an opportunity of having a real person and to not only bring the language but bring the wider understanding, and it’s done that - it’s been incredibly effective.”

Ilminster Intermediate Chinese Language and Culture Day

As with Olsen-Brown, Ferris believes having already learned te reo is a big advantage for many of his students.

“We’re getting so many kids now that are getting competence in te reo that it’s moving [to] the next stage, because once a student has got two languages they can usually learn three or four.”

While there has been much debate over what languages schools should prioritise, the Foundation’s Educators Network manager Sean O’Connor says this debate shouldn't get in the way of policy being implemented.

He says as an official language of New Zealand, te reo Māori is a priority language, but as the students in Gisborne and Patea demonstrated, children's ability to learn multiple languages shouldn't be underestimated.

"As learners of both English and te reo, it was clear they had already developed excellent skills for the acquisition of further languages.

“The Asia New Zealand Foundation supports the learning of languages, as a way of building cross-cultural and social understanding”.

Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network member Will Flavell talks about learning both te reo Maori and Japanese

The Foundation advocates for a national policy on language learning and has recently voiced its support for a private member's bill filed by Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye that aims to strengthen language learning in primary and intermediate schools.

The Foundation's research suggest that in many cases children are entering the school system with a second language but are monolingual by the time the leave secondary school.

This is a real concern, says the Foundation’s chief executive Simon Draper.

“It is estimated that 60-75 percent of the world is at least bilingual, if not multilingual," he says.

"Countries make this investment so their students are more culturally competent, competitive and globally mobile."

The Mandarin Language Assistance Programme is an initiative funded by the New Zealand and Chinese education ministries and overseen by the Confucius Institutes at Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury universities. The programme started in 2009 with just two MLAs assigned to schools; in 2017 there were 147 MLAs were working in schools throughout the country.