A China expert is warning New Zealanders that they are ignoring the Chinese language at their own peril.

Dr Martin Jacques says despite an increase in numbers learning the language at school, New Zealand adults are still in the dark when it comes to knowing much at all about our giant neighbour to the north.

Tim Yen, Westlake Girls’ Chinese teacher, thinks learning Chinese is so much more than textbooks and practice.

Neighbouring Westlake Boys’ High School also teaches Mandarin. The students say it’s fun, but will also be a real advantage when they leave school.

Visiting China expert Dr Jacques says not nearly enough New Zealand schools are teaching Mandarin.

“Unfortunately, like many English speaking societies, we’ve grown lazy and complacent. We think everyone’s going to speak English,” he says.

With more than 1 billion speakers, he says Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world and the language of what will soon be our largest trading partner.

Employers and Manufacturers Association manager Kim Campbell agrees.

“He’s dead right. I’m not sure it’s actually the schools’ fault. There has got to be interest from the young people to want to learn the language, and certainly we would encourage young people to go and ask for Mandarin courses,” Mr Campbell says.

The Ministry of Education says the numbers learning Chinese at school are increasing, up 600 percent at primary level from 2003, and 76 percent at secondary level.

But it’s a different story at universities and polytechnics, where the numbers are falling.

“An ability with Chinese is going to be a passport to the future, a passport to success, and this mentality of ‘oh well English is enough, we don’t need to learn any language’, is extraordinarily short-sighted,” Dr Jacques says.

It’s a lesson Westlake’s students have already learnt.

— Julian Lee