Keith Montgomery: why is learning a foreign language a fading art?

Opinion: Dr Keith Montgomery says with foreign language learning falling out of favour, New Zealand risks creating an insular learning mindset.

Keith Montgomery outside Ljubljana University in Slovenia
Dr Keith Montgomery says a global approach to language learning like that of Slovenia is refreshing.

I was recently in Slovenia, a beautiful, small, central European country and truly a less-trodden gem. While English is widely spoken in Europe, I was struck by the excellent English spoken by every Slovenian we met. Language being my job, I investigated the country’s government language policy.

Essentially, for the just over two million Slovenian citizens, Slovenian is enshrined as the national language. All Slovenian citizens must speak and study in Slovenian, all newcomers must learn it. Foreign media may be broadcast or displayed in their languages of origin but must be translated, dubbed or subtitled in Slovenian. 

The sizeable Hungarian and Italian enclaves in Slovenia have protected rights to use their heritage languages and both of these languages are taught in school. This did not explain the excellent English until I found that in Slovenian high schools, studying a foreign language is mandatory. English is one of around six on offer. Then in November 2023, the government went a step further in educating its children, by announcing all Slovenian primary school children would learn a foreign language from Year One (rather than Year Four). 

In New Zealand, media report more schools backing away from foreign language offerings and that careers advisers actively encourage students not to study languages at tertiary level. Arts degrees, in general, are increasingly denigrated as a waste of time. Languages are part of the arts. Parents facing financial challenges may well pressure offspring to study high school subjects that are ‘useful’ based on a perception that a university degree must ultimately ‘pay its way’. There’s a logical, consequential and short-sighted effect on Arts enrolments.

In the 1990s, the University offered language and literature programmes in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, Russian and Māori. We also offered Scandinavian Studies, which encompassed Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, and classical languages including Hebrew. In many departments, students could study modern and historical forms of language and literature.

Departments also offered special courses in related languages such as Croatian, Polish and Ukrainian, which were all taught in the Russian department. There was talk of introducing Arabic. This accorded well with the Languages in Aotearoa New Zealand Statement on Language Policy (2008) under the section on international languages. It says, “New Zealanders should be encouraged and given opportunities and support to learn international languages, including those of New Zealand’s key trading partners.”

Now, all New Zealand university language departments are under threat. Like the students’ parents, universities seem to model their academic offerings not on global value, but on the basis that programmes pay their way.

Logically, this University positions itself as a high-ranking South Pacific learning institution and offers Pacific and Asian languages to cater to our communities. But what about the languages of the rest of the world?

At Auckland in 2023, Arabic never arrived, Indonesian and Scandinavian Studies no longer exist; Russian has been ‘suspended’. The remaining language departments are, by and large, shadows of their former selves. Does this really matter in 2023? Perspective, I guess. Should we focus inwards or look outwards?

There has been a general malaise with regard to opportunities for foreign language learning.

Dr Keith Montgomery, Faculty of Arts Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland

In the most recent government language policy document I can find, ‘Developing a National Languages Strategy’ (2021), there was a ministerial briefing note to then Minister of Education Chris Hipkins. Hipkins had asked the Education Ministry to provide advice on how and when a national languages strategy for schools could be developed ‘as a result of the Education (Strengthening Second Language Learning in Primary and Intermediate schools) Amendment Bill (the Second Languages Bill) not being progressed.

Its stated goal was to “provide an overarching framework for teaching and learning languages in Aotearoa New Zealand and set the direction for the refresh of learning languages in the New Zealand Curriculum in 2023”.

Unlike the 2008 Statement of Policy, at no point in this document are languages other than New Zealand languages – English, te reo Māori and NZ Sign Language – referred to or even alluded to. Granted, the 2021 document is not policy, but it’s clear that foreign languages aren’t on the radar. The document states, “The development of a national languages strategy will set the direction for the refresh of the learning languages area of the New Zealand Curriculum in 2023.”

Which brings me back to Slovenia. It is stated that its language policy is “to build a community of autonomous speakers with advanced language competence in Slovenian, with sufficient knowledge of other languages, and with a high degree of language self-confidence and motivation to accept language and cultural diversity”.

Its education policy, reinforced by its national language policy, clearly preserves its national identity and culture and protects those of its minority cultures. In requiring foreign language study in its primary school system, neither is threatened, and Slovenia positions itself and its citizens to receive and to look out on the world.

While progress has been made in ensuring children have opportunities to learn te reo Māori, there has been a general malaise over the past 30 years with regard to opportunities for foreign language learning, despite our desire to produce global citizens and a need to strengthen relationships with global trading partners. From the lofty aspirations for language education expressed in the 1992 Ministry of Education Aotearoa through to the periodic reactivation of official interest in 2008 and 2021, foreign language study has steadily eroded.

Currently, what passes for New Zealand language policy positions its citizens to focus on New Zealand languages only. Surely our young people deserve and are capable of more?

Because, once any system for learning is dismantled, reinstating it is extremely difficult. Its place is filled, its resources lost and we’re consigned to cramming a few unsatisfactory weeks of language learning via Duolingo, as a courtesy to locals in countries in which we may work or visit.

Dr Keith Montgomery is a senior lecturer in linguistics in the Faculty of Arts. 

This piece appeared as the Māramatanga column in the December 2023 Uninews