[lg policy] Opinion: NZ policy silent on language learning

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu May 7 15:08:37 UTC 2015

Opinion: NZ policy silent on language learning

by Karen Ashton

Recent headlines about the state of language learning in New Zealand
schools makes for pretty miserable reading: 'Fewer pupils learning
languages' and 'Schools fail on foreign languages' (NZ Herald). Apparently;
'Overall, Ministry of Education figures show the percentage of secondary
school language learners to be the lowest since 1933' – the lowest number
of students learning languages for 80 years.

According to Dr Graham Stoop, the Ministry of Education's head of student
achievement, 'the drop in language enrolments was because students no
longer saw languages as important'.

The reality is somewhat more complex. Languages in our schools do not
receive the support they should. They are a learning area in the New
Zealand Curriculum but not a compulsory one. What’s more is that New
Zealand is one of the few countries where learning a language is not
compulsory at any age.

The importance of languages ­– particularly Asian languages – is frequently
mentioned by the Government, as well as by business and education leaders,
in the media.

The focus is usually on globalisation, trade and the need for economic
growth. However, there is a mismatch between what is said at this level and
what actually appears in terms of policy directives and implementation.

Although calls for the introduction of a national languages policy in New
Zealand were first made over 20 years ago, and are supported by a wide
range of stakeholders, there is currently no such policy in New Zealand.
The lack of a national policy for languages, and the fact it is not a
compulsory learning area within the New Zealand Curriculum, sends a
negative message about the importance of language learning in New Zealand.

It doesn't stop there – further negative messages can be found in other
Government 'policies'. For example, a wide variety of credits in subjects
such as drama and PE count towards literacy credits at NCEA level 1 and 2 –
New Zealand's 'National Certificate of Educational Achievement'. As well
they should – no argument there.

However, there is ample evidence that learning a language supports first
language literacy – more evidence, I would suggest, than for a number of
other subjects that are credited.

However, this is ignored in New Zealand policy where only credits in Te Reo
Māori and Latin count towards literacy credits. Credits in languages such
as French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese do not. No Government
rationale for this has been provided.

This isn't the only area where the evidence base in the research literature
is ignored. The main messages from Government or the media regarding
language learning are around the extrinsic benefits of learning a language
as a ‘career tool’ to prepare students to work in the increasingly
'globalised' world. And it appears that schools and parents are
significantly influenced by the extrinsic benefits of a language in their

This can be seen in Government funding support for Asian languages over
other languages and in the growth of Chinese as a trade language,
overtaking the numbers of learners of other languages, such as Japanese.

However, increasingly in the literature, intrinsic benefits such as the
attraction of learning about a new culture and making connections with
others are highlighted as important reasons or motivations for students to
study a language. Intrinsic, rather than extrinsic factors, are also cited
as key reasons for students continuing to learn a language.

Interestingly, the focus of the New Zealand’s curriculum's Learning
Languages area is also around intrinsic factors, such as connecting people
locally and globally, the interconnectedness of language and culture, and
developing the ability to move between different languages and cultures.
Yet this is just another example of mixed and conflicting messages.

It is hardly surprising that students are not taking languages given the
lack of support and incentive to do so at policy level. Long-term
commitment in planning and stability of policy is needed rather than the
current ad-hoc and sporadic rhetoric for current 'in-trend' languages.

*Dr Karen Ashton*
<http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/expertise/profile.cfm?stref=049040>* is a
senior lecturer and specialist in second language learning and teaching in
Massey University’s Institute of Education.*
Related articles

Massey welcomes new funding for Asian languages
Study encourages early language lessons for Kiwi kids


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