Students benefit from learning a foreign language because it improves global job opportunities, a new study says.
A European Commission study revealed the earlier a person starts learning a language the more proficient they will be. The four-year study involved 55,000 students aged 14 and 15 from 14 European countries. It tested the listening, writing and reading skills in the two most commonly taught languages in their country.
Project manager Karen Ashton, who was based at the University of Cambridge and joined Massey University in April, said the findings showed the earlier a person started learning a language, the more proficient they would be.
Dr Ashton said learning a second language was important for personal and cultural development and it could also increase a learner's job opportunities and employability, especially in the global job and trade market.
Robert Hyndman, of Brookfield School, said it was "an admirable goal" for a second language to be compulsory at school but budget constraints meant this was not feasible in the current economic climate. A lack of qualified teachers able to teach foreign languages was another major obstacle. "For the last five years we've had an option for children to learn Spanish ... but with the current budget we're not able to offer it this year," he said.
"The teacher offers private lessons but only a very limited number of children have taken that up. Before we had 30-40 children learning Spanish."
Tauranga Intermediate principal Brian Diver supported young children learning foreign languages.
For some students, Chinese was a compulsory component of their studies.
Mr Diver said learning Chinese would "give the kids a competitive advantage" as it was a language that would greatly enhance their future opportunities in New Zealand and abroad.
"Some people say [kids] should concentrate on learning English but I believe learning another language actually helps with their English language structure and acquisition. I believe the younger the better," he said
Tauranga Girls' College head Pauline Cowens said in order for children to reap the full benefits of learning a second language, it needed to be supported in the home environment. "There needs to be more than just the five hours at school. They need to practise the language at home and then it becomes embedded in their life."
Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Max Mason said, from a business point of view, being able to speak a second language was beneficial as the world was becoming increasingly globalised.
"This is the century of Asia and if you look at the free trade agreements and the relationships built by exporters and the Government, the focus is on Asia ... and if New Zealand students are more proficient in Asian languages they will do better in business. It's definitely something we would support," Mr Mason said.
Under the New Zealand Curriculum, students in Years 7-10 have the opportunity to learn a second language but it is not compulsory. A spokesperson from the national primary teachers union said New Zealand was a multicultural nation and the education system needed to reflect that.
NZEI Te Riu Roa president Ian Leckie said highly successful education systems were multilingual and languages needed to be integrated into the learning curriculum rather than it being an extra- curricular activity.
"We need a good, well-trained teaching workforce which is able to deliver multicultural languages in a classroom situation, rather than sitting down and saying right, now it's time to learn Japanese. That way language becomes natural to the children," he said.