Heartland New Zealand might seem a long way from Mainland China, but students here are being denied important cultural and educational opportunities as long as Mandarin remains off the school curriculum, says a Massey senior lecturer in Chinese Dr Rosemary Haddon.
Mandarin (Chinese) language learning has increased ten-fold in Auckland primary schools, but in many smaller regions the language is not established in the curriculum, says Dr Haddon.
“It denies the children in these areas an invaluable learning opportunity and disadvantages them with respect to future career choices, jobs and earning potential,” she says.
A shortage of qualified teachers is the given reason for not offering Chinese in schools, yet little has been done to address the situation, says Dr Haddon.
However, the People's Republic of China made news last week by sending 70 language assistants to primary and secondary schools throughout New Zealand in an initiative set up as part of the 2008 Free Trade Agreement.
Meanwhile, a specialist language teacher from China joins Massey’s Chinese programme this month and will be available to give free tuition in the local schools that offer the language on an extra-curricular basis or have plans to include Chinese as a regular part of their offerings.
Ms Lanhui Ying is a qualified teacher of Chinese who holds a Master’s degree from the prestigious Beijing Languages University. She is being sent to New Zealand under the auspices of Hanban (Office of the Chinese Language Council International) and will stay in this country for two years.
In addition, Dr. Haddon says the Confucius Institute (based at Auckland, Victoria , Canterbury and Otago universities) provides schools with teaching resources and other materials. Under the scheme, clusters of schools can be granted a “Confucius Classroom” status, making them eligible for resources and support for Chinese language and culture programmes.
Canadian-born Dr Haddon has been teaching Chinese at Massey since arriving here in 1995. The Chinese programme, which is part of the School of Humanities, has flourished since then with extensive distance offerings and, more recently, additional papers on the Albany campus. In 2012 she launched a popular Chinese film festival in Palmerston North, which also ran in Albany last year.
In describing her own journey as a student of Chinese, she acknowledges it can be a daunting language. “ It helped turn my life around during a challenging period. More significantly, it opened the door to a profoundly fascinating world, a world that beguiles and intrigues me still.”
After completing a PhD in modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she spent 18 months at the Australian National University, Canberra, as a Postdoctoral Fellow before coming to New Zealand.
She was “shell-shocked” by the attitudes to language learning here in contrast to North America, Europe and Asia. In China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and other areas of the Chinese-speaking world, “one thinks nothing of the vast levels of multilingualism,” she says. “Everyday life is a matter of hearing and speaking Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai-nese, Min, Hakka, multiple dialects, not to mention English, Japanese, Korean, and others”.
Dr Haddon stresses the advantages enjoyed by those who speak more than one language, including superior creative thinking, multi-tasking skills and even improved numeracy. As well as Chinese, Massey offers Japanese, French and Spanish language programmes as part of its Bachelor of Arts degree, or as electives in business, science or education degrees.
Another consideration for learning Mandarin is that China is New Zealand’s premier trading partner – in particular for dairy and agricultural products that are fundamental to New Zealand’s economy, she says.
“On the economic front, not sharing a common language is a barrier to trade,” says Dr Haddon. “Small to medium enterprises suffer the most from the reduced language facility, which is especially important in the New Zealand context given the high proportion of these enterprises.”