Opinion - Turning the tide on ‘declining’ languages: Japanese as a case study

02 Sep, 2015
AUT Senior Lecturer in Japanese Dallas Nesbitt says we need to act fast and act now to save 'declining' languages in New Zealand, particularly Japanese.

Opinion piece written by AUT Senior Lecturer in Japanese Dallas Nesbitt.

In recent years, the uptake of Japanese language studies in New Zealand has suffered a steady decline. This is in part due to the burst of Japan’s economic bubble in 2011 and a high number of students opting to study Chinese instead, says Dallas Nesbitt, Senior Lecturer in Japanese in AUT’s School of Language and Culture.

The numbers speak for themselves – The Sasakawa Report, Japanese Language Education in New Zealand reports a significant decline – 37% fewer secondary students chose to study Japanese in 2012 than in 2005; and 40% fewer tertiary students.We need to flip this downward trend.  

Despite popular opinion which vouches for the economic importance of learning mandarin as a second language instead, there are many opportunities for those who are fluent in English and Japanese in New Zealand.

Japan and New Zealand have long shared a deep and close relationship in civic, cultural and business arenas, and contrary to popular thought, these relationships have not diminished with economic decline. Japan is still New Zealand’s fourth largest trading partner with a stable trading history of more than 60 years.

In New Zealand, Japanese companies account for roughly 9,000 jobs. With the re-opening and recovery of the Japanese market, this number is only expected to grow as Japanese companies venture overseas for expansion.

Business benefits are not the only reason to pick up another language. There are many advantages in knowing a second language besides the ease of conversing when travelling overseas. Learning a foreign tongue develops your mind in a multitude of ways; it makes you more adaptable, creative and builds cultural awareness.

To halt the decline of Japanese language in New Zealand, our government, local communities and individuals all have a role to play.

Government’s role – call for a National Languages Policy

The New Zealand Government can help halt the decline of language learning by implementing a national languages policy. It is time that we recognise the diversity of tongues spoken in New Zealand.

Currently, New Zealand does not have, for example, a Japanese language advisor within the Ministry of Education. A Japanese language advisor could oversee and ensure a smooth transition for young people continuing Japanese language studies through all levels of schooling, from primary to tertiary.

Society’s role – it’s not ‘either or’, it’s ‘and’
Collectively, as a society, we should recognise a well-rounded education that embraces all types of subjects.

Encouraging our children to take interest in science and maths is good, but let’s also encourage them to see the value in learning a second language. Instead of learning Engineering or Japanese, why not study both? It is a tremendous value-add career-wise when graduates can speak more than one language.

Individual role – keep in touch
For those who already have some proficiency in Japanese, it is also their responsibility to maintain it. Consider it a privilege to be able to speak more than one language. They should invest in this privilege by continuing to grow and maintain their Japanese language skills.

Get involved in Japanese clubs for example – it ensures constant improvement. The internet also offers a never-ending resource of native Japanese speakers that will practise with you in exchange for help in sharpening their English language skills.

Act fast, and act now
In another article about monolingualism in New Zealand, my colleague Sharon Harvey highlighted that an ‘English is enough’ perception could inhibit the nation’s chances of becoming a more globally responsive country.

The numbers are declining across all languages in New Zealand. If New Zealand wants to remain competitive in the global market, we need to act fast and now. We can begin by investing in and engaging with the foreign languages that work well in the New Zealand situation.

Dallas is also Vice-President of Japanese Studies Aotearoa New Zealand (JSANZ). Dallas’ research about the Japanese language extends from the use of digital games for kanji learning to resolving the many complexities of the kanji classroom.

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