Schools are teaching thousands of pupils French and German but New Zealand will be left behind unless more graduates are fluent in Asian or South American languages, employers warn.
Education Ministry figures show nearly 70,000 pupils studied foreign languages at secondary schools last year, with 27,284 learning French.
Japanese was also popular (18,440), followed by Spanish (9531) and German (6623).
Chinese - spoken by the world's most populous country and New Zealand's new free trade partner - attracted just 1687 pupils.
German cultural institute the Goethe-Institut has launched a pilot project supported by the ministry to have more German taught in schools.
But Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly questioned whether schools should be pushing European languages when the large emerging economies were in Asia and South America.
New Zealand needed graduates fluent in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese to take part effectively on the world stage, but did not have enough fluent teachers, he said.
"Our stock of Chinese-language speakers needs to rise, otherwise we'll be left on the sideline as other countries race ahead of us.
"One of the reasons we get more French taught in schools will be that there are many more teachers capable of teaching French.
"That same level of capability does not exist for Asian and Spanish languages."
Under the new curriculum, schools must be "working toward" offering pupils in years 7 to 10 the option of learning a second language from 2011, in a push to make more Kiwis bilingual.
However, the ministry says it is up to schools and their communities to choose which languages are offered - meaning French is likely to remain popular.
A ministry spokesman said measures were underway to boost teachers' ability to teach a variety of foreign languages in schools.
They included Maori medium scholarship and overseas exchange programmes.
- © Fairfax NZ News