Number of students learning Chinese dropping after Mandarin Language Assistants head home due to COVID-19

It's Chinese language week this week - a time when organisers usually celebrate the rapid growth in young people picking up the language. 

But this year, schools are telling a different story.  

Over the last two years more than 100 teaching assistants returned to China, and now the number of students learning Mandarin is dropping.

At home, Makaleb Ualesi speaks Samoan with his family, but at St Peter's College he's learning Chinese. 

He just won an Auckland Chinese speech competition and qualified for the global event, but Makaleb's school is one of nearly 150 in New Zealand who have lost their Mandarin Language Assistant (MLA). 

MLAs are an initiative in the free-trade agreement with China that funded Chinese masters students to come here and help schools offer Mandarin lessons. 

So for instance at St Peter's, the MLA supported the head Mandarin teacher. 

"If I have a Chinese teaching assistant, that allows me to teach different levels and different groups at the same time," explained Bingmei Zhang of the NZ Chinese Language Teachers Association.

"So MLAs really play an important role in supporting our students learning Chinese."

In other schools, the MLA would teach the language themselves and just be supervised by a local teacher. 

Demand for MLAs was so high, the Government negotiated to double the numbers coming here to 300 - but that was 2019, before COVID-19 shut international borders. Now all but a handful of MLAs have had to return home.   

It means many schools have axed Mandarin lessons because they can't afford or find teachers here to fill the gap left by assistants from China. 

"Nothing beats first-hand experience, so our children do really engage with that - it's more relatable when you've got someone who is authentic," said Morrinsville Intermediate School Principal Jenny Clark.

There has been huge impact on primary schools' Chinese learning, and that's especially concerning for those looking to be culturally connected and globally equipped. 

"China's got quite a dominant market in the world these days, and therefore it opens up opportunities for children to become involved in future career prospects," Clark said.

"Although it may seem difficult in the beginning, it will definitely pay off in the end because it is a widely spoken language and a language I think will pay off," said Ualesi.

Those opportunities may be closed along with the borders for some students at the moment, but it's a language education gap that many schools hope to fill when MLAs can eventually return.