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Is learning Mandarin an economic necessity?

Lynda Chanwai-Earle

20 Sept 2015

Will speaking Mandarin be economic necessity for New Zealanders in the future? Do New Zealanders need to bridge the cultural and linguistic knowledge gap between China and New Zealand? Is there an economic need to have more New Zealanders communicating with and understanding China in a cultural context?

The Principal of Wellington East Girls College says it's time to shift our gaze from the UK to Asia. Her school is encouraging students to think about Asia for future employment and career prospects.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle attends the launch of the inaugural New Zealand Chinese Language Week at the college to learn more.
"For every million dollars of exports we’ve got 63 students studying French and only 2 studying Chinese. We have to lift these numbers up – we have to lift up our Chinese studies" – Patrick English, Executive Director of the NZ China Council

Year 13 student Lucy Prestidge from Wellington East Girls College gave a very impressive speech entirely in Mandarin, translated by fellow student Isla, to a captive audience including the Minister of Education, the honourable Hekia Parata and the Charge d'affaires from the Chinese Embassy, Mr Fang Qui.

The occasion – the official launch of the inaugural Chinese Language Week on September 7 this year. Over 100 people attended the launch, including New Zealand China Council Chief Executive Patrick English, Education Counselor Chen Yue and Commercial Counselor Zhang Fan from the Chinese Embassy, as well as the Principal, Chinese language teachers and over 100 Chinese language students from Wellington East Girls' College.

So is learning Mandarin a future economic necessity for New Zealanders? Enjoying the festivities of the launch, Executive Director of the NZ China Council, Patrick English tells me that even with the economic downturn China is our 2nd largest trading partner – so yes.

“There are 24,000 students studying Chinese at Primary level in NZ – but this number drops by secondary – so we have to have those increased numbers to flow through to university – so we have to keep at it and start them young. Chinese are a large percentage of our own population in New Zealand. It’s something for our students can learn – being able to speak Mandarin will contribute to future employment.

"You make it fun! I started learning Chinese when I was 30 and the brain’s too slow."

The New Zealand Chinese Language Week (NZCLW) is a Kiwi-driven initiative that aims to increase Chinese language learning in New Zealand. The initiative is the first of its kind in any Western country and emerged in the context of a rapidly strengthening relationship between New Zealand and China.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata announced the official launch of the New Zealand Chinese Language Week, noting that the New Zealand Government had invested NZ$10 million to support Asian language promotion.

Chinese language courses had become the fastest-growing foreign language program throughout New Zealand primary schools. The New Zealand Chinese Language Week was the product of the advanced state of New Zealand-China bilateral relations and would further advance the exchanges between the two countries and strengthen cooperation in various sectors.

The cultural activities at the launch were organised by over 100 excited Chinese language students from the school and included calligraphy, tea art and paper cutting – and Chinese dance, with Minister Parata joining the students to dance to the Chinese pop song Little Apple.

Minister Parata tells me that she is really excited about giving students the opportunity to learn a second or third language across the country.

"New Zealand is building a very strong relationship with China it’s a very important part to our trade and economy. These students are learning about the culture ... Mandarin language creates career opportunities are really important" - Minister of Education Hekia Parata

So what does China think about our need to learn Mandarin?

Charge d'affaires at the Chinese Embassy Mr Fang Qui tells me it’s not just about trade or closer economic ties. For Mr Fang it’s critically about people to people connection.

"It’s very important for us to understand each others culture, to bring the hearts of our two people closer. It’s especially important to start from very young students; language is a bridge to bring our future generations closer" - Mr Fang Qui

Mr Fang noted that China and New Zealand had created many 'firsts' in China's bilateral relations with developed countries. The New Zealand Chinese Language Week would be the first nationwide Chinese language week initiated by a nongovernmental organisation in a western country.

And regarding our economic future, ambassadors like Year 13 student Lucy Prestidge are keen to learn more Chinese to expand their career horizons.

"I’m going to Otago University next year where I’m going to continue to studying Chinese. I don’t have concrete plans for what career exactly but I definitely want to be involved in languages – translation, interpretation. There are so many opportunities in the business world for China and New Zealand, as well" - Year 13 student Lucy Prestidge

So it seems that there are clear economic benefits for all young New Zealanders to embrace Chinese. The students are learning Chinese at the school under the guidance of teacher Karen Hu. Karen explains that her students initiated and ran the cultural activities themselves. “My students came up with all the ideas and made everything happen, the show, the dance and did dumplings for lunch today. They’re ear 9 to year 13, I’m really proud of them.”

And her star pupil Lucy Prestidge? “It's going to open up so many opportunities for her. For those young people – Chinese is still not being learned [in NZ] as much as other foreign languages, so this will help.”

Will learning Mandarin become compulsory one day? Principal of Wellington East Girl’s College, Sally Haughton sees this as a matter of adapting, of becoming culturally pluralistic.“We haven’t thought about it being compulsory, but we call it shifting the gaze from traditional places like the UK and Europe. We want our girls to imagine themselves with futures and lives in Asia, to be equipped to see their lives in Asia.”

"It’s a very important discourse – the idea that the 21st Century really belongs to China and that it’s a shift from former global partners" - Sally Haughton, principal of Wellington East Girl’s College.

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