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Chinese New Year celebrations spark language questions

Published: 6:53PM Sunday February 03, 2013 Source: ONE News

As celebrations for the Chinese New Year begin, questions are being raised about the low number of New Zealand children learning the language.

Auckland's ASB Showgrounds was transformed for the annual Chinese New Year Festival and Market Day yesterday.

The event ran from 9.30am to 4pm and included a grand opening from Prime Minister John Key, more than 200 stalls, cultural dances, martial arts and games.

But it takes more than festivals and parades to cement a relationship with New Zealand's second largest trading partner. And New Zealand parents and children are being accused of falling behind the curve.

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Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in the world. But in this country only 13,000 primary and intermediate school children learnt the language last year, while 31,000 studied French.

Once students hit high school, the gap widens with around 3000 leaning the Chinese language, and 22,000 learning French.

John McKinnon, executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, said: "We need to be able to interact with Chinese in their own terms and in ways which are comfortable for them as well as comfortable for us."

He said a change "has to happen out of the willingness of parents to have their children learning Chinese, and seeing that as an advantage for their children".

Mandarin's been part of the curriculum for 20 years at Onehunga High School in Auckland.

Principal Deidre Shea told ONE News: "What we're doing is not only investing in our students in terms of learning another language and culture, or supporting their own, but also preparing them for the world, in terms of their relationship and understanding of Chinese culture."

She said with Mandarin being the number one language spoken in the world its pretty compelling for the language to be learnt at school.

However, Shea said New Zealand's history as an island nation "means that we haven't had in my view a really strong primary language focus, so that has had a serious impact on us".

The Confucius Institute helps establish Chinese language programs in schools, by providing teacher aides and training.

Nora Yao, Director of Confucius Institute at The University of Auckland, said there is no language policy in primary schools in New Zealand.

"So in some ways we are filling the gap - we help the primary schools establish the Chinese programme. We think it's very very important for younger ones to start learning a foreign language." 

Many hope the Year of the Snake will bring an increase in the number of New Zealand children learning to speak Chinese.