Foreign language teaching archaic: academic

21:34, Apr 20 2014
Peter Coats and Michelle Kong
VALUABLE SKILLS: Peter Coats and Michelle Kong are making sure their children Samuel, 6, Theodore, 5, and Hugo, 3, grow up knowing multiple languages.

A leading academic in bilingualism has warned Kiwis are dropping well below global levels and the consequences could be significant.

Senior lecturer John McCaffery, from Auckland University's Education Faculty, said New Zealand continued to stick with an archaic model of language learning, which did not work.

His recent research will be the first in the country to look at bilingual education in a non-Maori setting after he spent time at Richmond Road School in Ponsonby.

Since 1996, the school has run a French-English bilingual programme, backed by Frenz - a group of parent volunteers passionate about the French language.

The not-for-profit group celebrated its 20th anniversary last month and president Franck Ridon said its achievements were testament to the commitment of those involved.

In the past three years the group has also set up a similar programme at Birkdale North School and a kindergarten called La Petite Ecole.


"Apparently someone said at the start, ‘we will only measure success in 20 years'," Ridon said. "We're going great guns."

Richmond Road School started with only eight students at the unit - known as L'Archipel - but now numbers had swelled to 110.

"It's just been mindblowing," said Ridon. "There's an underlying, growing demand for this sort of education."

McCaffery's research into the academic achievements of pupils involved in the programme gave hints as to why that demand was growing.

"They are outstanding," he said.

McCaffery said students were well above national standards and he was not surprised.

In the past five years, academic opposition to the benefits of learning another language had all but disappeared, he said.

He pointed to studies by the World Bank which led to it arguing that fostering bilingualism was the best way for countries to raise national economic output.

It was also the cognitive benefits of having to think and write in two languages that interested McCaffery.

He was frustrated programmes like the ones he had studied were the minority in this country and he took aim at the Education Ministry.

"The methods we're using in New Zealand to teach language are very outdated and derived from that old-fashioned British tradition where you try to learn a language in three 45-minute periods a week," he said.

"They simply will not look at bilingual education. It's like they want to put blinkers on and hope it will go away."

Ridon believed there was no chance of that.

Parents from many countries, not all French speaking, were trying to get their children into the bilingual programmes and that demand had Frenz looking to expand.

Ridon said it was important to continue the language learning once the children had left primary school.

Most moved on to intermediate almost fluent but there was often some "Frenglish", he said.

The next step was to explore "full bilingual pathways" through to high school.


Like most young boys, the Coats children, Samuel, 6, Theodore, 5, and Hugo, 3, argue - but at times their parents can't understand what it is they are bickering about.

That's because the boys are often speaking French, with a smattering of Mandarin.

Father Peter Coats said he and his wife Michelle Kong decided when oldest son Samuel was born that they wanted him to learn a foreign language.

Their philosophy was quite simple.

"Knowing more than one language opens up more doors and, having travelled, we know how poorly a lot of Kiwis and Aussies seem to stack up against our European counterparts," Coats said.

But he still shakes his head when he sees how far his children have come.

He and Kong have employed several French nannies to help with the boys for a couple of hours a day.

The Auckland couple told the nannies to speak French and only use English if the children did not understand. Combined with French pre-school, the boys were soon conversational in French.

"There was something very special about the day I arrived home, pulled into the driveway and . . . the little 4-year-old was arguing with the nanny in French. It was very, very cute to see and it was at that stage I realised somehow we'd done it."

Coats - who is also trying to learn the language - said it could make parenting a little more complicated.

"I hear them talking and I realise I'm way out of my depth," he laughed.

The two older boys are at Richmond Road School L'Archipel unit, while the youngest is at La Petite Ecole. The trio also attend Morning Star pre-school once a week, where they learn Mandarin.

"They love it," Coats said. "They're soaking up whatever we put in front of them."

Fairfax Media