“When you’re nine-years-old and living in a foreign country where no one understands a word you’re saying, you do whatever it takes to play a game of tag with the other kids.”

Wellington lawyer and Mandarin-speaker Nathalie Harrington knows more than most about the value of language acquisition to our daily lives. In 2001 her mother, a keen linguist, upped sticks in Hamilton and moved with her young daughter to a rural town in China’s Hunan province. While her mum taught English at the local boarding school, Nathalie quickly discovered that learning a new language is not just a communication tactic – it’s an act of survival.

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Ms Harrington was the final speaker in the 2018 expert speaker series hosted by the North Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE). Her talk, “Don’t get lost in translation!” explored the vital role that languages play in our personal and professional lives, particularly as New Zealand increases its engagement on the global stage.

Why blend business and classical language?

Now in her third year working for a large legal firm, Ms Harrington has recently returned from an eight-week intensive Mandarin course at the International Chinese Language Programme (ICLP) at National Taiwan University in Taipei. She was there as a recipient of the highly-competitive Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia (PMSA), with additional support from Taipei’s Huayu Enrichment Scholarship and the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Ms Harrington said the immersion programme was “the most challenging and rewarding of my entire language learning experience”, describing 12-hour days comprising intensive, one-on-one tuition on grammar and classical language, and up to seven hours of homework and preparation for the following day’s lesson.

For Ms Harrington, one of the most valuable – and unexpected – aspects of the programme was the decision to study classical Chinese. Initially planning to upskill her business-focused Mandarin, Ms Harrington’s teachers convinced her that an understanding of classical language – including literary and historical references – is the foundation to all business negotiations.

“If you’re in a high level meeting about policy or business strategy, there will be a mix of formal and informal language, as well as smatterings of classical references,’ said Ms Harrington. “It doesn’t matter how good your technical language is, it’s crucial that you can pick up on these nuances – Confucian quotes, for example.” It would be like missing references to Shakespeare in our English language, added Ms Harrington.

The bond between language and culture

The inclusion of classical Chinese also reinforced the supreme importance - and inextricable link - between cultural understanding and language skills. She offered an example of what can go wrong if a second language is learned in a cultural vacuum: one of her ICLP colleagues was technically brilliant in speaking Mandarin but had never lived in a Chinese-speaking place before arriving in Taipei. Without the ability to understand cultural cues or nuances, the student often offended the teachers by speaking negatively about the government – all while delivering the insults in “beautiful tones”.

“Understanding the language is not the same as understanding the culture,” said Ms Harrington, who also acknowledged that not all second-language learners have the opportunity to live in the country of that language. “In and of itself, second-language learning can help build trusting, respectful cultural relationships – but we need to be realistic about how much can be achieved without a significant cultural component.”

A bright future for language learning in NZ?

How then, to ensure language acquisition is recognised as an important learning pathway, academic discipline and professional value-add? Ms Harrington noted the lack of a national language policy and the chronic underfunding for language teachers, both of which she believes contribute to resistance to language-learning at tertiary level and as professional development. However, as New Zealanders internationalise in their personal and professional lives, Ms Harrington remains optimistic about the future of language acquisition in New Zealand.

“I am very encouraged by my peers’ attitude about the value of languages, at school, during tertiary study, and in the workplace. With a bit more nuanced thinking about what we want to achieve, and what we want to be able to say New Zealanders are capable of, then the outlook is great.”

Watch the "Don't get lost in translation!" videos with Nathalie Harrington

Need to know: Valuing language acquisition in the workplace (approx 7 mins)

Need to know: Examining the bond between language and culture (approx 10 mins)

Don't get lost in translation! Full talk (approx 37 mins)

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