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Professor Brigid Heywood, who chairs the the fund's management committee, says the extra $10 million over five years annnounced on Wednesday to set up new Asian language programmes and strengthen existing ones is "a wonderful initiative", particularly if it is encourages systemic changes in attitude about the value of people proficient in the languages of New Zealand's major trading partners.
Professor Heywood, Massey University's Assistant Vice-Chancellor Research, Academic and Enterprise, says that in recent years the importance of Japanese and other Asian languages has been frequently signalled in the media and in ministerial documents as a key to advancing multinational business relationships and export growth.
"But there has been a mismatch between what is said at this level and what actually appears in terms of policy directives and implementation." she says.
Research commissioned by the fund last year into the decline in Japanese language education in New Zealand in recent years identified a complex interplay of factors.
"It is not compulsory at any level to learn a language in New Zealand, so it’s exciting to see policy makers moving away from the view of languages as a ‘nice optional extra’. Not only is it vitally important for New Zealand to have proficient speakers of te Reo Māori and of the languages of our trading partners, but the more intrinsic benefits that learning a second language confers on individual – and by extension on our society – are being increasingly recognised by employers, who are starting to seek out speakers of other languages.
"Research is clear that those who have learned a second language are better multi-taskers, have better memory retention, are better team players. There is even research to show that learning a second language can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years.
"Our stereotypical ‘English is all we need’ attitude is changing. We’ll need to do a lot more, systemically, of course to distance ourselves from this attitude, but the minister’s initiative is a great start. There is strong evidence that companies in the UK are losing business to their European counterparts, and English graduates losing out in the job stakes to their European peers, because of their inability to speak the language of their trading partners. It is exciting that we are seeing positive steps at the policy level to avoid this happening in New Zealand."
In its programmes to support teachers and students of Japanese, the fund strongly promotes the value of adding Japanese to law studies, business, engineering and science.
"Employers are starting to call for employees with the particular skillset they seek, plus a language," Professor Heywood says. "We need to work harder to get this message across to students and their parents. But equally, our educational institutions need to look at restructuring their programmes to make it possible for students to add a language to their programme of compulsory papers – with some courses, it is almost impossible to combine them. And let’s look harder at how we can make the study of a language compulsory at some levels in New Zealand."
The Sasakawa Fellowship Fund for Japanese Language Education is a national programme set up in the late 1990s to support teachers and students of Japanese at all levels and across institutions. The funding comes from Japan but it is chaired and co-ordinated by Massey University.
The trust is planning to publish profiles of more than 100 New Zealand graduates in Japanese language, highlighting their successes in a wide variety of careers. One of them, Youth Japan New Zealand Business Council co-founder Jeanine Begg, speaks Korean as well as Japanese, has degrees in Japanese and political science, and is Antarctica New Zealand's marketing and communications general manager.
Created: 01/09/2014 | Last updated: 01/09/2014
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