Mandarin fastest growing language

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 13 April 2015

Embarking across the country Mandarin Launguage Assistants Wen Powles Director of Confucius Institute Wellington on left
Embarking across the country 104 Mandarin Language Assistants (Wen Powles Director of Confucius Institute Wellington on left).

"In China students are very obedient,  but here students here are different, they work in cooperation, in teams and are much more independent thinking."

The Mandarin Language Assistants listen to speeches croppedMandarin Language Assistant Liu Yawen is observing the key differences between our education systems as well as the contrasts between our countries: "Two days ago we went to parliament and we saw the debating. Ah, this is the way these children grow up; critical thinking, they can debate with each other!"

Liu Yawen hails from the town Weifang in Shandong Province, East China. Weifang is famous for it's kite flying, with the most spectacular international kite festival held in April every year. Liu Yawen won't be flying kites this year, she's here for one academic year, tutoring at Whakatane Intermediate School in Northland.

Liu Yawen and Wang Dan, also from Shangdong Province love being here. What's the first thing they noticed about this country? "It's so green, it's so beautiful, it's so clean! There are so many sheep!"

It might sound like a cliche but the clean, green image is not a myth for these tutors. Liu Yawen tells me that she considers China to be very beautiful but massively crowded and the larger cities all struggle with pollution. New Zealand's pollution free environment is an inspiration for her.

A total of 104 MLAs have just arrived from regions across China. At the Hikoikoi Marae in Petone, Kuia and Kaumatua Anna and Peter Jackson are giving the group their first experience of a powhiri.

In response the MLAs enthusiastically embrace singing waiata for the first time. They work at their greetings in te reo Maori and then they sing Mo Li Hua with gusto, a classic Chinese folksong.

Chinese is becoming the fastest growing language studied in New Zealand. Tony Browne, Chair, Confucius Institute, Victoria University, Wellington.

Tony Browne (Chair Confucius Institute) and MLA Liu Yawen.

Tony Browne (Chair Confucius Institute) and MLA Liu Yawen. Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Tony Browne is the Chair of the Confucius Institute, Victoria University, Wellington. He explains that the MLA program is managed by the three Confucius Institutes across the country, at Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. Tony tells me that the group is the largest that they've ever hosted. Each year the number grows to match the demand. It's also about accessibility: "We have MLA's working in schools from Northland right down to the bottom of the South Island. They're here because Mandarin is the fastest growing language in New Zealand."

It's a program that allows native Mandarin speakers to come and work in schools throughout New Zealand no matter where. Each MLA went through a rigorous selection process to come here but it is a two way cultural exchange. Each MLA will be billeted in a home-stay to experience a grass roots lifestyle.

We don't want them to come here simply as evangelists for Chinese culture. We expect them to learn about New Zealand and go back richer for that experience.

Tony tells me that New Zealand's economic future is so inextricably tied up with China. "China is becoming an integral part of New Zealand, for trade and immigration. You can't separate ethnic communities if you consider the whole picture of New Zealand. For us, having New Zealanders that are confident in the Chinese language and culture underpins the relationship."

Now in their fourth year of hosting the programme, the Director of the Confucius Institute at Victoria University, Wellington Wen Chin Powles explains that the MLA's are all university graduates and volunteers choosing to come here. "Their specific responsibility and mandate is to help primary and secondary schools to build up their their Chinese program, through teaching Chinese language and culture to students from Year 0 to 13."

Wen Powles can see the MLA program boding well for the future of students here. The MLA are expected to inject a measure of Chinese culture to broaden the education of our students. "The key thing is that the MLA have a curiosity, these tutors are keen to absorb during their total immersion process. It's a wonderful opportunity; learning about marae protocol, learning about our culture."

Peter Jackson Kaumatua of Hikoikoi Marae and Wang Dan MLA right cropped
Centre: Peter Jackson (Kaumatua of Hikoikoi Marae) and Wang Dan (MLA) right.

Changing demographics in New Zealand? Kaumatua Peter Jackson has the privilege of presiding over the citizenship ceremonies in Wellington and the Hutt Valley. He has noticed the changes in the increase of Asian immigrants here reflected in what New Zealand schools are now teaching:

New Zealand is ahead of many countries in terms of adopting Chinese language. The fact that schools' like Rotorua Boys High have Mandarin as their only foreign language is quite amazing.

Wan Dan tells me that she is really excited about tutoring at three schools in Napier in Hawkes Bay: "I have three schools; one primary, one intermediate and one high school. When we visited a school here, I was so shocked because the students were so lovely and the school had such a relaxed atmosphere. It's totally different from China. I want to learn te reo Maori, I hope to have a good time."

Liu Yawen tells me that she values the cultural exchange above all else with her students at Whakatane Intermediate.

We have a phrase in China: When you teach somebody, you also learn from them.