For all the attention paid to gender and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing as reasons for Helen Clark missing out on the top job at the United Nations, the former Prime Minister revealed in an interview last weekend that a lack of language skills was also to blame.

In an article on Stuff, Clark stated that not being able to “speak French or Spanish” was a factor in her losing out to Portuguese António Guterres as UN Secretary-General. Of the 12 candidates for the role, Clark was the only English native speaker and the only monolingual.

If someone with the profile of a former Prime Minister can be negatively affected by a lack of language skills when competing on the international stage, what does that mean for the rest of us? What opportunities would be open to New Zealanders if we had better language and intercultural skills? And how can we turn around our woeful language-learning statistics and make sure Kiwi kids are well-positioned to seize these opportunities in the future?

Eighty percent of New Zealanders speak only one language and rates of language study in schools and universities have been declining significantly since 1993, according to the Ministry of Education. As a country, we also have a record of taking pre-schoolers who speak languages other than English into our education system and turning them into monolingual English speakers. Yet recent Asia New Zealand Foundation research shows that more than 90 percent of us believe learning other languages is valuable and more than eight in 10 believe New Zealand children should learn a language other than English.

We put ourselves at a disadvantage if we ignore the benefits of learning to function in other languages and cultures rather than expecting others to adapt to ours.

It’s encouraging to see the issue of language learning on the agenda this election and widespread agreement that we can do better in this area (despite valid concerns about how best to go about it).

After many years of relative neglect of languages, the Government’s commitment last year to invest $34.5 million in the Centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence signals greater recognition of a need for improvement if we want deeper, mutually beneficial economic, cultural and political relationships with the countries of our region. Shifts in global power relations and phenomena like Brexit and political turbulence in the United States suggest that relying exclusively on English won’t be enough in other parts of the world, either. While speakers of other languages will continue to learn English, we put ourselves at a disadvantage if we ignore the benefits of learning to function in other languages and cultures rather than expecting others to adapt to ours.

According to a recent Economist report on The Future of Work, “virtually any career, public or private, is given a boost with knowledge of a foreign language”. A recent New Zealand employment market report notes that there is “a scramble for talented candidates with foreign language skills and access to global networks” in sectors like banking, while a trends report from IT Professionals New Zealand notes that “with many ICT/software companies operating globally, job candidates who are able to interact in multiple languages are highly sought”.

Many international companies are well aware of what they stand to gain by employing people with knowledge of the languages and cultures of their clients. As former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt famously put it, “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

An estimated 65-70 percent of the world’s population speak at least two languages. They enjoy advantages that most Kiwis are missing out on. Beyond the economic and trade arguments, bilingual and multilingual students outperform monolinguals in cognitive tasks and achieve better results across the curriculum. Research also suggests that monolingualism limits our health and well-being: a recent study from the University of Edinburgh shows that learning another language, even as an adult, keeps your brain sharp as you age and can delay the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer’s by years. Studies conclude that any amount of language learning is good for you, and that, contrary to popular belief, anyone can do it, at any age.

We need to make the most of the bilingualism and multilingualism that already exist in Aotearoa New Zealand.

We should do three things in the short, medium and long term to make sure every New Zealander – from the toddler entering early childhood education to the next former Prime Minister aiming for the top job at the UN – can enjoy the benefits of language learning.

First, we need to make the most of the bilingualism and multilingualism that already exist in Aotearoa New Zealand. This must start with Te Reo Māori, but should also include community and heritage languages. We need to do more to celebrate our rich cultural and linguistic diversity and encourage awareness that acquiring even a basic knowledge of another language can begin to transform our interactions with its speakers and aid our understanding of their worldview.

Second, those entering the workforce over the next decade need to develop their knowledge of other languages and cultures by studying them at secondary and tertiary level and practising their skills through technology, work-related learning and face-to-face encounters. The curriculum should reflect how varying degrees of proficiency across different languages can be useful in different contexts.

Third, we need to provide support and incentives for teachers at all levels of our education system to improve their language skills and for speakers of languages other than English to train as teachers. This is essential if we truly want to provide opportunities for all children in New Zealand to have deep knowledge of more than one language and culture.

The result will be they grow up in a more inclusive, prosperous and internationally engaged nation – and can grasp opportunities denied to previous, monolingual generations.

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