Chinese language education needs collaboration boost

Chinese language university courses in New Zealand have declined in the past decade, in contrast to the rising importance of Chinese languages, says Dr Danping Wang, Senior Lecturer of Chinese at the University of Auckland. She spoke to us about the history and future of Chinese language education.

Chinese language education needs collaboration boost

70 years of Chinese language education

Chinese language teaching in Aotearoa New Zealand began as a community initiative, says Dr Danping Wang, a Senior Lecturer of Chinese at the University of Auckland. She tells the story of Chinese language teaching’s 70-year history in New Zealand, in her recent book, Teaching Chinese in the Anglophone World: Perspectives from New Zealand, edited with Professor Martin East.

Teaching Chinese in the Anglophone World: An Overview of the New Zealand Case
This chapter provides a comprehensive overview of Chinese language teaching in New Zealand within the context of declining foreign language learning in Anglophone countries. By examining the macrosociological and demographic factors that have shaped the development…

As Dr Wang recounts in the book’s first chapter, the earliest recorded Chinese lesson in Aotearoa New Zealand can be found in a local Chinese magazine in 1950. That lesson helped Cantonese-speaking children maintain their literacy skills and cultural roots. In October the same year, Fung Shiu Wing, a full-time minister of the Baptist Church arrived in Wellington from Guangzhou, China to teach Chinese writing to Kiwi Chinese children at the church. 

Chinese language was first brought into the formal national education system via the University of Auckland, in 1966. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mandarin Chinese was introduced into secondary schools.

Dr Danping Wang receiving an award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching (2023) from the University of Auckland Chancellor Cecilia Tarrant Photo: Supplied

With nearly 20 years of experience teaching Chinese as a second language and developing teaching resources for learners of Chinese at all levels, Dr Wang has important insights into Chinese language teaching and learning in New Zealand. She notes the importance of history in understanding the current challenges and possible ways forward, and especially the role of Chinese communities here. 

“Recognising the impact of New Zealand’s assimilation policy, which was moulding the younger generation into monolingual English speakers through education, the Chinese community took proactive steps to offer Chinese language lessons,” says Dr Wang.

In her book, Dr Wang details critical milestones and statistics tracing the growth of Chinese in New Zealand’s formal education sectors. An early milestone came in 1974, two years after New Zealand established diplomatic relations with China, when New Zealand’s Government sponsored the first group of students to study in Chinese universities.

Later, the 1990s saw a wave of Asian language learning, spurred by increased immigration from China and other parts of Asia. This contributed to the formal inclusion of Chinese language into the curriculum in 1995, followed by Japanese in 1998, and more recently, Korean. During this era, all but one of New Zealand’s universities joined the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington (which began in 1974) in offering Chinese language programmes.

A second surge in Chinese language learning took place from the 2010s, particularly in primary schools. Dr Wang’s book records that the increase mainly resulted from a six-fold increase in primary schools offering Chinese language and culture enrichment programmes from 56 in 2008 to 345 in 2017, while primary school students learning Chinese rose from 2,335 in 2000 to 68,874 in 2017. A slower increase was seen in secondary schools, from 1,891 students in 2008 to a peak of 6,368  in 2020, before declining to 5,044 in 2022.

Today, while six out of New Zealand’s eight universities offer Chinese language programmes, this number may be on a downward trend. One has stopped offering Chinese programmes and others face potential reductions to their Chinese programmes.

The rise and fall in language motivation: it’s not just about economics

“Overall, foreign language programmes in universities across the country have experienced a slow and steady decline in student numbers over the past 10 years, dropping by 40 percent from 4,295 to 2,535 between 2010 and 2019,” notes Dr Wang. Within this trend, Chinese student numbers fell from 595 in 2010 to 301 in 2019, she adds.

The University of Auckland, where Dr Wang teaches, appears to be weathering the changes well, with enrolment numbers of around 400 each year, and another 200-300 students taking Chinese-related courses. While the University of Auckland’s Chinese programme is robust, offering 8 language-level courses and several transdisciplinary Chinese culture courses, Dr Wang reports that resources are stretched very thin. Today it has three full-time academic staff and a primary focus on maintaining enrolment to survive. A decade ago, the Chinese team had eight or more full-time staff.

This is a far cry from the Asian languages wave in the early 2000s, which saw enrolments peak as high as 800 to 1,000 students. Dr Wang has even heard stories from senior colleagues of “students bringing tents to queue overnight for fear of not being able to choose their favourite Asian language programme”.

Chinese remains a medium-sized programme, smaller than Japanese, Spanish and French in both secondary and tertiary education. This surprisingly does not align with the strong trade relationship between New Zealand and China, says Dr Wang, who is worried by the overall decline in Chinese language learning.

“China is the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries in the world, and has an ancient and influential cultural history. From an economic, political or cultural perspective, Chinese is one of the most important languages in the 21st century,” says Dr Wang.

Yet, interest in learning Chinese appears to be waning. The reasons are not clear, but there are some clues.

Dr Wang points out that research in the past decade has found students’ motivation to learn foreign languages does not correlate to the economic value of the foreign language itself. For example, enthusiasm for learning Japanese did not fall with Japan’s waning economic growth. In the same way, the Korean wave and Korean language craze are not because learning Korean can lead to better jobs, but because Korean is a popular culture that can provide students with entertainment and enrich their cultural life.

Long-term thinking for long-term capability

Though motivation may rise and fall, long-term thinking and development is important to New Zealand’s language capabilities, as programmes and experienced staff cannot be recreated overnight, says Dr Wang.

“After projects are scrapped, it is difficult to revive them in the short term. New Zealand is losing Chinese language education talents and China studies experts. It will be difficult to recover from this damage in the next ten years. With just one or two staff running a Chinese programme, it is unrealistic to expect them to be research active or engage in school outreach, social and cultural activities as before.”

Similarly, at primary and secondary levels, schools are reducing Chinese language programmes. Dr Wang says she knows of some Chinese language teachers who had to switch to teaching social studies and ESOL as a result of language programme cuts. Another problem, notes Dr Wang, is the lack of continuity in Chinese language teaching at schools due to the transient nature of Mandarin Language Assistants (MLAs).

These Mandarin teacher aides are provided under New Zealand’s Free Trade Agreement with China and organised by the three Confucius Institutes in New Zealand. The young MLAs, many of whom are here on their big ‘OE’ (overseas experience) from China, are placed in schools for a year where they work with local teachers to support their Chinese programmes.

With the MLA programme, the number of school students learning Chinese reached a record high of 70,000 in 2017. When international borders closed during Covid-19, these Chinese lessons stopped when the MLAs headed home.

Dr Wang notes that even with the return of MLAs this year, many schools prefer not to offer Chinese lessons. She thinks the way forward is to have greater ownership of teaching capacity through building a pool of locally trained teaching professionals.

“Can we also look into developing a local teacher training programme to help more New Zealanders as well as our Chinese language students to become Chinese language teachers?” asks Dr Wang.

The way forward

Dr Wang suggests that the greatest opportunity for wide exposure to Chinese language learning is in schools, even kindergartens or at home. She also says that young learners’ interest in Chinese needs to be better maintained and supported as they progress to the next level of education.

At the moment, with foreign languages being an optional subject, secondary schools are seeing a decline in foreign language learning, a trend seen in other English-speaking countries.

The lower level of interest in learning foreign languages can be linked to the hegemonic status of English in society and the time taken to acquire fluency in an additional language, says Dr Wang. New factors affecting language uptake might include potential disruption to language-related careers from developments such as artificial intelligence and changes in globalisation patterns.

Dr Wang suggests widening the pool of Chinese language teachers to include more non-native speakers. She shares the example of her Pākehā postgraduate student whom she appointed last year as a language tutor. Her experience gave students who are non-native speakers confidence to excel in their learning.

At the other end of the learning spectrum, there is no clear pathway in the school system for heritage learners of Chinese to reach a high level of language competency.

“There are no dual or immersion Chinese programmes in New Zealand schools, which are popular in the United States. Chinese language programmes here predominantly cater to non-Chinese students. As a result, most Chinese heritage students study Chinese in the community, at home or online and many have bad memories of being forced to attend weekend Chinese classes.”

Dr Wang advocates a concerted approach driven by the government, NGOs, the Chinese community, schools, and universities. “I would like to propose forming a national Chinese education focus group in New Zealand,” says Dr Wang.

She hopes such a focus group would involve the active participation of the Chinese community and stakeholders to promote Chinese language education in schools. Stakeholders could include representatives from various Chinese associations, New Zealand China Council, Asia New Zealand Foundation, Chinese Language Week Trust, New Zealand Chinese Language Teachers’ Association and businesses.

Unlike the United States, where there are numerous funding programmes supporting Chinese language teaching, the New Zealand government has never allocated substantial funding to do so, says Dr Wang.

Although New Zealand has seen Chinese Language Week running for nine years, the only English-speaking country to have such a language campaign, she thinks that Chinese language learning should not be limited to one week a year, and it is crucial for the government to move beyond a mere celebration.

She wants to see a collaborative effort with universities to promote research-informed language learning and ensure the sustainable development of community and school teaching. Professional support should be available to transfer individual success in language learning into enhanced Chinese language capacity for the country.

“Another idea is to popularise Chinese education among New Zealanders, especially the Chinese community. With the heritage speakers, we need to advocate the concept of Chinese as a family language and assist families with Chinese children to formulate bilingual or multilingual family language policies starting from the age of one.”

Dr Wang adds that, with the reduced teaching capacity in New Zealand universities, it is crucial to establish a platform for sharing resources. This would allow students who require a specific course in one university to fulfil degree requirements by studying it at another university.

A common platform could help universities include more Chinese language courses for all New Zealand university students, elaborates Dr Wang. She gives examples such as business Chinese, medical Chinese, translation, as well as Cantonese, Southern Min or Hokkien, for speakers within New Zealand communities.

She explains that if only one university offered any of these courses, they would soon have to discontinue the course due to low enrolment.

“It is a call for everyone to work together to arrest the decline in Chinese language learning”, concludes Dr Wang.