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How learning new languages boosts your brain & keeps it young

Kiwis are record travellers, but 80% of us speak only one language, despite evidence that learning to speak in another tongue keeps the brain young.


For Tumanako Bidois, born in Rotorua, now living in Auckland, talking over the phone in English is just one option. At 19, the University of Auckland student can switch effortlessly from English to te reo to Spanish.

“At school it just became a habit. You were unconscious you were doing it; it was put into our everyday routine. But it’s opened up so many opportunities. I can do things around the world because I know those languages.”

Bidois’ parents worked hard to immerse their children in te reo. Although not raised to speak Maori, they used the language in their home. They sent their two children to Te Kura o Te Koutu, a Years 1-15 Maori immersion school in Rotorua where for the first seven years, the curriculum is taught in Maori – and, thanks to a teaching unit on South America, Spanish.

“The Spanish began when we were doing a unit on the Mayans,” says principal Uenuku Fairhall. “It was difficult to get good resources so we introduced a bit of Spanish. The demand grew until it spread to the whole school.”

Today, all new entrants learn Spanish three times a week, te reo the rest of the time and, from Year 7, English.

Every three years, says Fairhall, the school “busts its guts” to fund a class trip to Mexico so the students can take what they have learnt “and turn it into a useful tool”.

Multilinguist Tumanako Bidois. Photo/Victor Carter
Multilinguist Tumanako Bidois. Photo/Victor Carter

“I had this idea of Maori finding a place in this country, then finding a place in the world. Because our children are already bilingual, it is easier to go on and become trilingual and it is a real advantage if you have got cultural capital to share – it can be a determinant in getting a scholarship or getting a good job. So hopefully this will open a bigger, wider world to them where they can work and engage and at the same time take their Maori-ness with them.”

Now in her second year of biomedical science studies at university, Bidois aims to become a doctor. “Knowing te reo Maori, I’ll have a better connection with patients. Even if they don’t know te reo Maori, being Maori and showing that I am Maori might make them feel more comfortable about coming to hospital.”

Further north, at Whangarei Hospital, a medical intern from Auckland is making his elderly Dutch patients more comfortable when he starts speaking to them in their native language. “Often they’re quite surprised. When they talk back to me they’ll switch in and out of English and Dutch,” says 24-year-old James Klaassen. “They forget they can talk in their native language; they are just not used to it.”

Klaassen was 14 when he decided to teach himself the language as a way of keeping alive the connection with his recently deceased Dutch grandfather. His parents did not speak the language and it was very different from the French he had been learning at his Auckland school.

Ten years later, he can converse not only in Dutch, French and English but also in German, Spanish and a smattering of Portuguese and te reo. All but his facility with French is the result of a self-learning programme of books, videos, the internet and practice with any native speakers he comes across. These skills, he says, will give him a huge advantage when he fulfils his dream to work and travel abroad.

“When people learn another language, they are not just replacing English words. The whole sentence can be in a different order, the concepts are different. So even when I am speaking [to someone with a different language] in English, if I know their first language, I have an influence in terms of knowing what words they want to use and knowing more what they mean with their word choices.”

Multilinguist James Klaassen. Photo/Ken Downie
Multilinguist James Klaassen. Photo/Ken Downie

Phrase-book fumblers

Most of us wouldn’t have a clue. New Zealanders are frequent travellers – in the year to May we clocked up a record 2.45 million overseas trips – but our Google maps, phrase books and customary friendliness do not hide the fact that 80% of us speak only one language. Many of the hundreds of Kiwis, including about 200 athletes, in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics will be struggling to order their cabs and caipirinhas; although the Olympic movement has three official languages – English, French and the main language of the host country – only a small proportion of Brazil’s Portuguese-speaking population know English.

And our ability to speak languages other than English appears to be declining. We are an ethnically diverse country – 160 languages are spoken in New Zealand, and Auckland is recognised as one of the most diverse cities in the world. Recent research by the Asia New Zealand Foundation shows more than 90% of us believe it is valuable to learn another language. According to a response by the Ministry of Education, language learning in schools grew by just under 9% between 2007 and 2015, to a total of 318,484 language enrolments.

But these figures include primary school pupils learning a second language for as little as 15 hours a year. At high-school level, second-language learning is plummeting.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of secondary students studying French, German, Japanese, Latin, Russian and Indonesian fell by more than 18,000 (the last two falling off the Ministry of Education chart completely). Although the number of those studying Chinese, Spanish, Samoan and Tongan went up, the number of secondary school students enrolled in a foreign language overall declined by about 13,500. Even te reo Maori, the most commonly taught language at secondary level, fell slightly. As the New Zealand Council for Educational Research reports, in 2014 less than 10% of Year 13 students were studying an international language for NCEA Level Three.

Such trenchant monolingualism is not unusual in English language-speaking countries. Although English is the world’s third most common language spoken by native speakers, it is recognised as the global language of business, scientific research, media and popular culture. And speakers of other languages often learn English as their second language. The result? Native English speakers, says Stephen May from the University of Auckland’s School of Maori Education, tend to be “spectacularly uninterested in learning other languages”.

But from a global perspective this is unusual. Most of the world’s population speaks more than one language, with many children growing up with, or learning at school, up to five languages. The benefits are manifold. Aside from being able to converse with people from a wider range of cultures, bilingual students consistently outperform monolingual students in a whole range of cognitive tasks, even when taking factors such as social class into account, according to studies over the past 50 years.

Bilinguals and multilinguals have been found to be better at linguistic abstraction, decision making and what May describes as cognitive flexibility – a combination of divergent thinking (a proxy for creativity) and convergent thinking (the ability to marshall a range of factors to find the solution to a problem).

Learning another language at school improves performance across the curriculum, whether it be mathematics or primary language reading (bizarrely, languages outside English, Maori and Latin do not count towards NCEA literacy credits as required for tertiary institutions).

There is also a growing body of evidence showing the bilingual brain remains younger than the monolingual brain. A 2014 survey of a number of studies shows that elderly people who have spoken two languages for most of their lives are faster than monolingual seniors at switching from one task to another. Bilingualism has also been shown to delay the onset of memory and reasoning loss and other symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s, such as anger outbursts, restlessness and sleep disruption. According to one report, the time between early Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the actual appearance of telltale symptoms is up to five years longer in elderly bilinguals than in elderly monolinguals. This difference is most prominent in those bilingual from infancy, but even those learning a second language in adulthood showed better outcomes than those who remained monolingual.

New Zealand singer-songwriter Laurence Larson. Photo/Kylin Image Photography
New Zealand singer-songwriter Laurence Larson. Photo/Kylin Image Photography

Valuable job skill

In an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to speak more than one language also enhances career opportunities. Singer-songwriter Laurence Larson took up Mandarin while studying for a degree in popular music at the University of Auckland. Now 22, he does English/Chinese covers and compositions that have won him a slot on top-rating Chinese talent show Sing My Song and more than 10 million Chinese social media hits. He has now moved to Beijing to set himself up as a full-time performer and song writer.

“I am very much a Kiwi at heart. I want to bring my culture into the Chinese culture as much as I want to take Chinese culture back to New Zealand. But through learning the language, I have discovered so much about China. Just being introduced to a language – it doesn’t matter what language it is – opens you up to another culture, another way of thinking.”

In international business, sport, tourism, musical stardom, as well as in overall educational achievement, bilingualism or multilingualism is a clear winner. Its opposite can be a distinct disadvantage, as former Prime Minister Helen Clark found out when her much-publicised lack of French-speaking ability hindered her bid for France’s support of her UN leadership ambitions. So why are we so reluctant to learn a second, third or even fourth language?

Much of it is historic. Colonial settlers brought with them the old hierarchies of academia, by which foreign languages were seen as the prerogative of academically minded children destined for professional occupations or high-status positions within society. For the less-academically minded, heading for the factory or the farm, foreign language learning was seen to risk some kind of cognitive overload.

Nonsense, of course. As May says, “If multi­lingualism is the norm around the world, that means it is irrespective of academic ability.”

Another deterrent is the idea that, to be fluent in a language, students who have not grown up speaking a second language must do years of study. Yes, it takes five to six years in a bilingual programme for students to master a language to cope well academically, but getting by in a second or third language does not require this level of proficiency.

“Unless we have a particular goal to be fluent,” says Karen Ashton, senior lecturer at Massey University’s Institute of Education, “I don’t know if it is a necessary or even a particularly helpful term.” Increasingly, she says, people are talking about a “spikey profile” of different languages – “stronger in some than in others, strong in listening in one, strong in writing in another – having a mixed profile and this can-do approach to languages is a positive”.

Although younger students find it easier to acquire a native-like accent when learning a new language, even a weekly class for adults can provide some grounding in grammar, language structure and conversational vocabulary.

Families who speak a language other than English at home, including Pasifika families, have different reasons for wanting to focus solely on English, most notably the fear that maintaining their children’s first language may interfere with their ability to learn English. Recent statistics show that, of the 62,000 people who identify as Cook Island Maori in this country, only 13% can speak the language. Four Cook Island Maori dialects are listed by Unesco as either vulnerable or endangered.

These fears, says May, are unfounded. Rather than seeing the first language of non-English-speaking students as an educational obstacle to be overcome, it should be regarded as an educational and social resource to be valued and used within the school.

“The best way to learn another language, including English, is to become literate in your first language. But in New Zealand schools, outside of Maori medium, we have exactly the opposite. We have a process where children know two or three languages, but when they get into the New Zealand school system we say, none of that, we’ll start again from scratch with no recourse to the languages you already know. These multilingual students are often in the worst indices of education achievement. It is not because of their ethnicity, it is not because of their bilingualism, it is because their prior linguistic knowledge and repertories are not used or recognised.”

Faced with a class representing five or six native languages, a monolingual teacher will understandably seek recourse in the one all will eventually have to learn. But even if a teacher doesn’t speak the native language of a pupil, says May, there are ways to facilitate language learning by building on the language children already know, using buddy systems and families or whanau in the classroom.

“One of the reasons we have a literacy tail in New Zealand is because we are very poor at teaching these effectively bilingual students. But we cannot talk about building a ‘knowledge economy’ unless we adopt and pursue those educational approaches best suited to accomplishing this for all students – not only for first-language learners, but for second-language learners as well.”

Similarly, the idea that “too much” Maori may undermine the learning of English has been found to be wrong. Research into language interdependence shows the opposite is true. Students who learn to speak, read and write in Maori, says May, are more likely to succeed academically in both Maori and English.

Or Mandarin. Last year, Richmond Rd Primary School in Auckland began teaching its 375 pupils Mandarin language and culture two days a week, in the hope, says principal Jonathan Ramsay, “it will spark an interest in children who are learning just English”.

“Families who enrol their children in the school want that diversity of culture and language. You can walk around the school and there’ll be people speaking in French, Samoan, Maori, English. And the introduction of Mandarin last year showed children who were already bilingual picked it up far quicker.”

Richmond Rd, currently embroiled in a public stoush over Maori representation, was the first mainstream urban primary school to establish bilingual units, beginning with Samoan and te reo Maori in the late 1980s, then, in 1996, French. Today, pupils learn through one of the four language-immersion units: Te Whanau Whariki (Maori), Mua i Malae (Samoan), L’Archipel (French) and Kiwi Connection (mainstream English).

The extent of immersion teaching differs according to each language. In their first four years at school, children in Te Whanau Whariki are taught the Maori curriculum, Te Marautanga o Aotearoa, in te reo Maori; in their last two years, 20% of the curriculum is taught in English. In Mua i Malae, pupils have full-immersion Samoan for the first three years then a 40:60 English-Samoan split for the final three years. In L’Archipel, the first year is taught 100% in French then 40:60 English-French for the following five years.

Yes, it can be a struggle to find speakers of these languages trained to teach in an immersion setting. Of the secondary school teacher trainees graduating from the University of Canterbury at the end of this year, only two have a major in another language – one in Maori and one in Spanish – compared with 23 majors in physical education and 10 in English education. But the growing demand for bilingual schooling will, Ramsay hopes, encourage more bilingual trainee teachers.

Richmond Rd Primary’s Jonathan Ramsay hopes Mandarin sparks language interest. Photo/Tony Nyberg
Richmond Rd Primary’s Jonathan Ramsay hopes Mandarin sparks language interest. Photo/Tony Nyberg

Signs of improvement

We have advanced. Where once Hinewehi Mohi caused a mighty furore by singing the national anthem in Maori before a Rugby World Cup game in England in 1999, the bilingual anthem is now widely used. We have about 460 kohanga reo. As of 2013, some 150 early-childhood services operated through Pasifika languages, most commonly Samoan and Tongan. Last month, a hikoi of more than 4000 people walked from Parliament to Te Papa in Wellington to mark the beginning of Maori Language Week.

“Maori Language Week is a beautiful thing,” says Maori Development Minister Te Ururoa Flavell. “You hear te reo on the radio and television and in Parliament.” But a week later, we put it all away again, he says.

“If we were able to get to the point of normalising Maori language throughout the country, we wouldn’t have to worry so much about Maori Language Week.”

The Ministry of Education says it is putting more emphasis on languages, and te reo Maori in particular. In 2010, the school curriculum for English-medium schools was updated to include language learning. It talks about extending students’ linguistic and cultural understanding and ensuring that students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents “are recognised and affirmed and that their learning needs are addressed”.

The ministry’s early-childhood curriculum similarly emphasises the importance of biculturalism, language and cultural identity.

In an email response, Lisa Rodgers, the ministry’s deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement, says the Government supports French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Mandarin through programmes based on bilateral agreements with respective governments, “as well as providing language teaching resources, professional development and curriculum support”.

But second-language learning is not mandatory. It is left to student choice.

“Imagine if we had student-led demand for maths and science,” says Massey’s Ashton. “We would never be in that situation.” She is one of several people calling for a national language policy to explain why languages are important and to set a framework for further engagement in second or third languages.

What languages should these be? Mandarin is the most commonly used language in the world, spoken by over 14% of the population. In 2015, more than 4300 New Zealand secondary school students were studying Mandarin, more than double the number of 10 years earlier. Although it is still fifth on the list of languages learnt at high-school level, responses to an Asia New Zealand Foundation survey showed Mandarin was considered the most valuable language to learn.

That’s true for trade and tourism purposes, at least. “We talk about promoting Chinese for economic reasons,” says Ashton, “and that is important, but it is difficult to maintain a coherent strategy and policy through that kind of rhetoric.” A different approach is to look at what languages are spoken most commonly in this country: English, Maori, Sam oan and Hindi, respectively.

“A lot of people argue against learning te reo Maori or Pacific languages on the basis they have no value or use,” says May, “but why is French or German more prestigious or useful? You can use Spanish and Japanese or Mandarin in an overseas context, but it is much less useful in New Zealand because those languages are not widely spoken here.”

According to Rodgers, te reo is woven into the fabric of the New Zealand education system. “We are the only country in the world to have an indigenous-designed curriculum [Te Marautanga o Aotearoa] that sits as part of the national curriculum. The New Zealand Curriculum requires all students have the opportunity to acquire knowledge of te reo Maori and tikanga Maori.”

But statistics indicate a decline in Maori language use. Although Maori is the most commonly taught language at schools, just ahead of French, the number of kohanga reo has plummeted since the highpoint of 767 in 1996. In the 2013 Census, fewer than a quarter of Maori could hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo Maori, a 4.8% decrease from the 2006 Census. Overall, only about 3.7% of us can speak te reo.

Flavell says the survival of the language starts and finishes in this country. “It has its roots here; it isn’t found anywhere else. If we can’t take responsibility for it, no one else can.”

Ease into te reo Maori

Small steps are important for fostering the language’s uptake: picking up Maori phrases, pronouncing Maori place names correctly, having bilingual words and signs in hotels, greeting people with “tena koe”, “morena” or “kia ora”. A major advance, says Flavell, is the new Te Ture mo Te Reo Maori/Maori Language Act 2016. This Act establishes Te Matawai, a new entity charged with supporting iwi to lead the revitalisation of the Maori language.

“We have to be bold and have that aspiration of normalising the Maori language. If that was accepted as a goal, as an official language of New Zealand or as a Treaty responsibility or just as fair play, resources should go into fulfilling that and everything planned accordingly.”

Will momentum grow without state intervention in the school curriculum? Although people spoken to for this story studiously avoided the word “compulsory”, the idea of making te reo a core subject in the curriculum appears to be winning support.

Politically it is risky. In an English-dominated context, says May, “language is not high on the agenda for politicians and they worry about a backlash if they do something like that, so it tends to lead to inertia”.

The Ministry of Education, says Rodgers, is not considering the introduction of a national language policy “and there are no plans to make te reo or any other second language compulsory”.

But it can be done. May points to the national Welsh-medium Education Strategy, adopted in 2010 to provide Welsh language instruction from preschool level to higher education. “When Welsh was made compulsory, you had parents saying it is a waste of time; much better our child learns French. Now that Welsh has become a condition of employment in the civil service, those same people are complaining they are disadvantaged because they don’t know Welsh.

“Te reo should be a core subject in all schools. Maori is spoken nowhere else in world – if it’s no longer spoken here, it’s no longer spoken anywhere. We keep talking about being a bicultural country, but really biculturalism is only meaningful if we see it institutionally realised; otherwise it is just rhetoric.”

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