WELLINGTON, March 4 -- New Zealand's government is all talk and no action when it comes to the teaching of Chinese in schools and universities and the inaction is costing the country in lost business opportunities, a leading academic in Chinese studies said Tuesday.
While the government had been talking up "the Asian Century" and the importance of trade with China, the country's biggest export destination, it had been squeezing funding for the teaching of Chinese and other languages, Massey University senior lecturer in Chinese Dr Rosemary Haddon told Xinhua.
Although China's Confucius Institutes and Hanban (the Office of the Chinese Language Council International) offered assistance, New Zealand schools, particularly outside the major cities, had been slow to add Chinese to the curriculum, Haddon said in a phone interview.
A day after Prime Minister John Key announced he would travel to China this month to explain New Zealand's food safety measures in the wake of last year's global botulism scare over Fonterra's whey protein concentrate, Haddon issued a statement on the Massey University website saying "not sharing a common language is a barrier to trade."
Many schools were just "not interested in teaching Chinese," Haddon told Xinhua.
This was despite teaching materials offered by Chinese institutions, and the arrival of 70 Chinese language assistants to primary and secondary schools in New Zealand under a Chinese initiative set up under the 2008 bilateral free trade agreement.
"They're always saying there are not suitably qualified teachers. I guess they don't want to hire teachers from China because they want New Zealand-trained teachers," she said.
However, she knew of only one New Zealand tertiary institution that offered a graduate diploma in teaching Chinese as a second language.
"There is an issue as to how to get teachers qualified. The Chinese programs have been cut back to the bone," she said of New Zealand tertiary institutions.
"We don't have enough staff to offer what we need to. The government has gradually been taking money out of universities. That means staffing levels are dropping and language programs are struggling," Haddon told Xinhua.
"We're running on the smell of an oily rag. It's very difficult to offer programs or diplomas for teaching Chinese. Languages aren 't being promoted."
New Zealand boasts of being the first developed nation to sign a bilateral free trade agreement with China and the governments have set a goal of doubling two-way trade to 20 billion NZ dollars (16.72 billion U.S. dollars) by 2015.
However, the failure to learn Chinese and understand the country meant New Zealand companies were passing up unrealized profits, said Haddon.
"A lot of small and medium-sized enterprises say they can't find people with language skills and they really need these people, " she said.
"If you know the language and culture, you can go to the country and look at the factories yourself and ask the questions and negotiate. You can draw up the contracts directly and set your own terms."
"There's been an awful lot of talk for decades about the 'Asian Century,' but it's very demoralizing because it just seems to be talk here in New Zealand," said Haddon.
"Teaching Chinese and Asian languages has got to start in schools. We've had enough talk -- it's about time to have some action."