Kōrero: Classical and foreign-language studies

Whārangi 3. Modern languages

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Bachelor of Arts students had to study a modern language until the early 1970s. In 2013 modern languages were offered at Auckland, Canterbury, Massey, Otago, Victoria and Waikato universities and the Auckland University of Technology.

French and German

French and German were the first modern languages to be offered at New Zealand universities. Initially, these languages were taught by professors of other subjects, such as classics. The University of Canterbury’s first full-time modern-languages lecturer, W. Mitchell Clarke, was appointed in 1891, 18 years after the university was established. Clarke’s position was raised to a chair in 1894, making him the first professor of modern languages in Australasia.

French and German were split into separate departments at universities in the late 1950s and 1960s.


Though George von Zedlitz never taught at Victoria University after he was removed in 1915, he continued to maintain ties with staff members and governors. He was made professor emeritus in 1936 and a new arts building which opened in 1979 was named after him.

George von Zedlitz became Victoria University’s fifth professor when he was appointed to the chair of modern languages in 1901. His father was German and his mother English and he lived in England from the age of four, though he remained a German citizen. His citizenship led to his professional undoing during the First World War, when a hostile government forced his resignation from the university.

Other languages

The other major European languages offered at New Zealand universities were Italian, Russian and Spanish. Victoria University’s Nicolas Danilow pioneered the study of Russian in New Zealand and began teaching it in 1942.

In 1965 Massey University became the first university to offer a degree in Japanese. An Asian languages and literature department was established at the University of Auckland in 1966. The first professor of Chinese was appointed that year, and Indonesian and Japanese appointments followed. Victoria offered Indonesian in 1969 and Chinese in 1972. Japanese was not offered until 1989. Asian languages (at first just Japanese) commenced at Canterbury in 1971. Japanese and Chinese were first taught at Otago in 1993.

Pacific language courses arrived fairly late. Cook Island Māori and Samoan were first offered at Victoria University in 1988 and 1989.  In the 2000s only Samoan was taught at Victoria, while the University of Auckland offered Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tongan.   The Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies emphasised political and anthropological rather than language studies. 

Other foreign languages irregularly taught at universities include Arabic, Croatian, Hebrew, Korean and Polish. Russian was discontinued at Victoria University in 2000; it is now taught at Auckland and Canterbury universities only. Italian and Spanish remain on the calendar of all language-teaching universities.

Department mergers

In the 1990s and 2000s separate language departments were merged into language schools covering a range of languages and related cultural studies. The University of Auckland is the only university to maintain separate European and Asian language schools.

Language institutions

The major language institutions outside the universities are the Alliance Française (French) and the Goethe-Institut (German). There are 10 branches of the Alliance Française and one of the Goethe-Institut in New Zealand.

Williams trivia

Harold Williams read the Bible in 26 languages, including the African languages Zulu, Swahili and Hausa. When he attended the League of Nations he was the only person able to greet each delegate in their own language.


Harold Williams, who was born in Christchurch in 1876, was internationally renowned as a polyglot (someone who can speak many languages). His facility for languages was evident from a young age, and he taught himself French, Hebrew, Italian, Fijian, German, Greek, Latin, Māori, Samoan, Spanish and Tongan while a pupil at East Christchurch School. Williams left New Zealand for Europe in 1900 and never returned. He became a journalist and an expert on Russian affairs. At his death he had knowledge of over 50 languages and was fluent in half of these.

Constance Barnicoat’s multilingual abilities were more modest, but her fluency in French, German, Italian and Spanish enabled her to forge an international career as an interpreter and journalist in the early 20th century.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Classical and foreign-language studies - Modern languages', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/classical-and-foreign-language-studies/page-3 (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014