The new language of love. Mandarin


At a time of unprecedented growth in the relationship between New Zealand and China, MEttle interviewed several key figures involved in furthering the learning of Mandarin, asking how developing a shared understanding of language and culture can help New Zealand to capitalise on the growing economic, trade and tourism ties with China.

The March visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to New Zealand made headlines around the Pacific.

While here, Premier Li and Prime Minister Bill English signed a number of deals across trade, customs, travel and climate change. Official talks were also confirmed to start on 25 April to upgrade the nine-year old free-trade agreement between the two countries, with the goal of building on two-way trade that has risen to $23 billion since 2008, boosting trade to a possible $30 billion.

Another 21 agreements were signed during the visit, including an increase in the number of flights between the two countries that will lift the weekly flight cap to 59 and a further 11 flights possible later this year.

Furthermore, Chinese multiple-entry visas into New Zealand have been extended to five years, and the number of Chinese tourists visiting New Zealand every year are expected to jump from the current 409,000 arrivals per year to over 1 million within a few short years.

However, one of the agreements signed during the recent visit did not make the headlines. The small mention of ‘the renewal of an existing education programme’ may not have set the world on fire, but is the doorway through which New Zealand must walk to create a future of improved cooperation, understanding and growth.


Tony Browne, New Zealand’s Ambassador to China from 2004 to 2009 and now Executive Chairman of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, plus the Chair of the Victoria University of Wellington Confucius Institute, says that language learning is the key to understanding what will power our shared future.

“The extent of our economic prosperity is dependent on China,” he says. “When I was ambassador we celebrated 50,000 annual visas into New Zealand. Now we’re racing towards one million.

“A major element of growing the tourism industry is to be able to service it. We are seriously short of the skills we need right now, and demand is only going to rise. If we want to provide the services that Chinese tourists want here, we need more people trained in the language and culture to respond to their wishes. We need people who can engage with China long term, people knowledgeable about China. And we have to grow them ourselves.”


Browne says that great progress is being made in teaching Mandarin in primary schools here. One such school is Churchill Park School in Glendowie, Auckland, which introduced Mandarin five years ago and has had a Mandarin language assistant provided by the Confucius Institute for the past four years.

Churchill Park School has also taken a lead role in bringing together a cluster of eight local primary and secondary schools to gain Ministry of Education ALLiS funding that supports the teaching of Asian languages in state and state-integrated schools.

“We have become aware of the importance of learning Mandarin and Chinese culture for New Zealand,” says Churchill Park School Principal, Liz Gunn. “Part of the Ministry’s vision is to prepare our children to be global citizens; it is our duty to introduce them to a variety of cultures.

“There’s an expectation that schools must be teaching a foreign language by years 7/8, but with all the trade and growing partnerships within Auckland, as well as internationally, it makes good sense for us to lead our students into these areas too. As our children will grow into a society where interacting with China will become more prevalent in a number of ways, we want to expose our students to the language and culture early on because we know children learn languages more readily the younger you teach them.”


At a secondary school level the dynamic becomes a bit more complicated, partly because this is a time when many high school students can be tempted to ignore foreign languages in favour of subjects that lead to accounting and law.

“Let’s talk about the numbers first,” says Tony Browne. “The Ministry’s own website ( shows that primary and secondary schools teaching Chinese over a five year period have shown exponential growth. However, although in secondary schools Mandarin is the only language increasing in numbers, the numbers are still low – way short of where we need to be.”

When asked why, Browne says that it is not primarily about a lack of interest or willingness on the part of schools. Firstly, he says, they just can’t simply change subjects overnight. “There are for example German language teachers in permanent positions. You can’t just convert a German teacher into a Chinese teacher just like that.

“Secondly, there is a shortage of teachers. Although there are plenty of bilingual people about, they cannot go into a classroom and teach unless they are qualified. This requires a period in a university to get the recognised qualification.

“And thirdly, we battle the perception that Mandarin is a ‘hard’ subject, and more importantly that it is difficult to achieve high NCEA grades when studying it. This is partly because of the nature of how NCEA is geared to languages in the western tradition – and doesn’t give adequate recognition to the complexities of using a completely different script.

“Furthermore, we hear that when students are trying to get their qualifications up to get into the top university courses, achievement in Mandarin doesn’t count towards the assessment of your capabilities. That is something the universities have brought in to try to balance out the bright Chinese kids who speak native Mandarin. It is difficult to get the momentum that we’d like to see – it’s an issue.”

This tallies with anecdotal evidence that some parents of children in streamed schools discourage their children from studying Mandarin as it can impact on what class a child gets into – and thus even whether they might get into some university courses.”

However, not all schools operate a streaming system. Chris Grinter, Principal of Rotorua Boys High School, which has been teaching Mandarin for nearly 25 years, says that while it may be true that many see Mandarin as a hard subject, students also view it as an exciting subject through the cultural exchanges and opportunities it provides.

“At Rotorua Boys High School we do not stream, we have virtually no domestic Chinese students and very few international Chinese students, so there is no more disadvantage than any other subject. And I think the desire to aggregate marks is less of an issue for our boys than the traditional desire to keep the three sciences and both maths subjects. Thus the stated disadvantage is not significant in our school.” Chris Grinter, Rotorua Boys High School


Browne says that the picture is not all about roadblocks. Many secondary schools are focusing on Chinese and have made strong progress, he says.

“There are many schools around the country where principals with vision are taking a pathway into Mandarin and are making headway. As Chair of the Confucius Institute, I work with 140 schools that the Chinese recognise as among the thousand world-leading Confucius Classroom schools. We have 29 of them in New Zealand.”

Two examples of Confucius Classroom leadership at a secondary level are Rotorua Boys High School and Westlake Boys High. Chris Grinter, Rotorua Boys’ Principal, says that a focus on Mandarin originally came about as a result of a strategic overview of which international languages should be taught in the school.

“At the time we taught Japanese, German and French. We decided that Chinese was the language most significant to the future of our young men, so we decided to put all our resourcing into it – and have done ever since. It is now compulsory in year nine and we teach it at all levels through the school.

“Other schools contemplating this pathway should be heartened by the level of support and resourcing available to teach Mandarin. The practical and financial support that comes from the Confucius Institute and a number of universities in New Zealand is hugely beneficial in preparing our young people to develop a strong relationship with China.”

Grinter says that the success of the approach is measured in the growing number of his students who choose Mandarin as a subject when it becomes optional. “I also think it is successful in terms of the world view we try to encourage our students to acquire. Some of our students are going to university to study Mandarin, and others are now living and working in China. It isn’t the remote destination it once was.”

“[Languages] broaden young people’s perspectives and increase their cognitive capacity in many ways, as well as preparing them for life outside school." Alex Reed, Westlake Boys High School

Associate Headmaster at Westlake Boys High School, Alex Reed, approaches the topic in a similar way, although Mandarin is one of seven languages offered at the school.

“We have a fundamental belief in learning languages,” he says. “They broaden young people’s perspectives and increase their cognitive capacity in many ways, as well as preparing them for life outside school.

“At Westlake Boys High, Mandarin is an important language because the relationship with China is important to us. Our programme was established here 14 years ago by Tina Kwok, who runs our international department. It’s a compulsory language for years nine and 10, and we now offer a course from years nine to 13. It has been going well and continues to grow, with around 300 students who study Chinese in our school now.”

Reed says that the school leads an ALLiS cluster of schools supporting Chinese from years one to eight, has sister school relationships set up in Dongguan and Shanghai, and has become a Confucius Classroom in recognition of the work it has done.

“We run cultural events, with a large annual China event that is supported by our Mandarin learners,” he says. “Moreover, our students have won essay and speech competitions, and have gone on to study the language at university. It has had an impact on our relationships too, most recently with a visit from the ambassador. Chinese is embedded into everything we do.”


All our interviewees are agreed that for the work that has been done so far to develop well into the future for all parties, funding, commitment and a culture of immersion and embedded involvement are required. Certainly, during the New Zealand-China FTA negotiations in 2007, the Chinese government sought a series of approvals for various Chinese skills to be admitted to New Zealand.

“The Chinese delegation asked for 150 visas for Mandarin teaching aides, to allow for growth,” says Tony Browne. “They are graduates from top Chinese universities who go through a tough selection process. They come here for a year and work in our schools – and at present there are 147 young Chinese graduates known as Mandarin Language Assistants working in around 400 of our schools. I find it particularly encouraging that these schools are not concentrated just in big centres and well established schools – lots of rural schools are involved too.”


“There are hundreds of millions of Chinese people learning English, and many of them are due to come to New Zealand,” says Browne. “However, if you are fluent in English that doesn’t mean that you prefer to speak in English. It also doesn’t mean that the leaders of your company speak English.

“If I was running a large New Zealand company seriously engaged with China, I would want to be able to interpret and understand what my Chinese partners are saying – and why. We need Kiwis with a deep understanding of China to engage with the depth needed to develop deep business relationships with this crucial economic partner.

“The more you understand a Chinese company’s culture, the deeper your relationship is going to be. Language is the entry point to understanding – you don’t need to be a native speaker to be sensitive to cultural nuance. So, as China is our second top trading partner, we need the human infrastructure to sustain that growth – and we need the support in our schools and onwards to develop that infrastructure.


Leaving the last words to the two secondary school leaders, Alex Reed encourages schools and businesses to support the language.

“Schools, sustain your commitment. Make sure your teachers understand that they need to engage with the students. And, business, please give students opportunities to get into the workplace, to show how Mandarin is an important tool that can be used. Schools are always looking for a connection with businesses – long term, as a school we want to see if we can connect with businesses and even offer tuition to them.”

Chris Grinter adds: “My main tip to schools would be to take some confidence and assurance from the fact that there are wonderful agencies out there that will support you and ease your anxiety around introducing Mandarin as a new subject. It is well supported with funding, by people like Tony Browne and the Confucius Institute, as well as opportunities for staff and students to travel.

“And the best thing that businesses could offer schools and young people is showing them how they value the acquisition of Mandarin in their future employees: putting value onto the acquisition of Mandarin. Nowadays this is not a journey that schools need to take on their own.”

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