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Language competence is a benefit

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 15 March 2013

If you filled in your census forms last week, you would have had to answer question number 13: “In which language(s) could you have a conversation about a lot of everyday things?”

The wording of the question is clumsy. I wonder how our statisticians define ‘a lot of’, what they mean by ‘everyday’, and whether ‘things’ could have been more specific.

Apart from that, it is however, a useful exercise to survey the languages spoken in New Zealand. Not least because in all likelihood it will reveal what a linguistically diverse country New Zealand is.

Research shows that about 160 languages are spoken here. This is a remarkable number that also reflects New Zealand’s attraction as a destination for migrants from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Linguistic diversity can also enhance a country’s economic performance. A recent article published in Economic Papers, the applied economics journal of the Economics Society of Australia, analysed the experience of the United States and Canada.

It came to the conclusion that higher degrees of multiculturalism (which included multilingualism) coincided with higher economic output per capita – but with one important proviso: Where linguistic diversity diminishes the fluency in the official language of the country, there was no positive economic effect of being diverse.

The positive effects of speaking more than one language go beyond the economic. The Royal Society of New Zealand just published a paper arguing for the benefits of multilingualism. It cites research showing that learning a language improved a child’s performance in mathematics; learning a secondary language improved the command of students’ first language; and language proficiency had a positive impact on students’ intercultural skills.

For countries whose official language is English, there may not be the immediate business imperative to learn other languages since world trade is dominated by English. Despite this, other English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia are realising the benefits of language instruction and promoting second languages at school. New Zealand, on the other hand, is lagging. Learning another language is not mandatory in our education system.

This is sad because my own experience of learning languages at school and university suggests there is hardly anything more enjoyable. If I have one regret, it is not having learned more of them.

So my answer to question 13 was English, German, and Italian. My one and a half years of French did not have a lasting effect on me. And despite six years of reading and writing Latin at school, it never felt like a language in which to have a conversation. With whom, anyway?

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