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Why does the idea of te reo Māori as a core subject make so many people flip out?

The arguments for compulsory Māori language classes in schools are compelling, yet some insist it means the sky is falling, writes Don Rowe.

Less than eight months out from the first post-Teflon-John election, the Green Party has placed te reo Māori at the centre of their campaign, calling for compulsory inclusion in schools. The plan, which would see te reo made a core unit until year 10, is a strident affirmation of a long running policy to work towards universal Māori in public education.

Marama Davidson, the Greens’ spokesperson on Māori development, pointed out that 2013 figures showed only 3.7 percent of New Zealanders spoke te reo Māori, while “the percentage of Māori who can hold a conversation in te reo Māori is falling”.

It seems reasonable, ambitious and forward-thinking – aka good policy – but nothing brings out reactionaries like the idea that one of our national languages should be taught at school.

Four hundred and forty three likes and counting on this one …

Never mind the proven cognitive benefits children gain through being bilingual. Forget that empowered indigenous communities have better outcomes across the board. Disregard that our national identity as a multicultural society with roots in te ao Māori is marketed around the world. Ignore even the fact we have an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi to preserve te reo Māori. What does any of that matter when there are some clear downsides, like:

“It’s a dying language!”, “Why don’t they learn something useful?” and “Buh buh buh my English! Why don’t we teach Māori to say ‘you’ instead of ‘youse’ first?”

Te reo Māori was dying once before. In fact, the state of the language was so dire after World War II as Māori became an urban people that in 1985 a claim was lodged with the Waitangi Tribunal alleging a failure of the Crown to protect te reo Māori. In the words of Māori Battalion veteran and Ngāpuhi leader Sir James Hēnare, “The language is the core of our Māori culture and mana. Ko te reo te mauri o te mana Māori [The language is the life force of the mana Māori]. If the language dies, as some predict, what do we have left to us? Then, I ask our own people, who are we?”

The tribunal ruled the Crown was failing to protect the taonga of te reo Māori, and was thus in breach of te Tiriti. Five recommendations were made around the retention and promotion of te reo, and in 1987 The Māori Language Act declared te reo Māori to be an official language of New Zealand. Two years later the Education Amendment Act 1989 recognised and promoted kura kaupapa (Māori immersion schools) and whare wānanga (publicly owned Māori tertiary education).

In mainstream schooling, the Post-Primary Teachers Association supported making te reo a “universal subject” for all school students within months of Helen Clark’s election. Labour’s education minister Chris Hipkins has also indicated support, saying that “many of us in the Labour Party” had supported that proposition in the past. Education Minister Hekia Parata, however, said students were more motivated to learn if they weren’t forced to, which seems a strange position to take when one considers we already have compulsory subjects and nobody is suggesting math be optional.

There are clear and transferable cognitive benefits to learning a second language. Anecdotally, exposure to Māori at school has also made learning Spanish much easier – things like rolling r’s, reading phonetically and varying the way vowels are pronounced are a significant part of the process.

Besides, education isn’t purely about pumping out efficient automatons, it’s about growing well-rounded people who are valuable for more than just their economic potential. An understanding and cultural context for our own history – which we still barely teach *cough* land wars *cough* – creates a more informed and considered citizenry.


Read more: ‘A nation without language is a nation without heart’: the Welsh case for compulsory te reo in schools


Of course, there are legitimate concerns around the policy. Most obviously, we don’t currently have enough teachers proficient in te reo to actually make it happen. Instituting the Greens’ plan would take time and money. Adjustments would have to be made to the current curriculum. It’s absolutely a formidable undertaking.

But that’s no reason to write it off. Here’s a small sampling of countries in which it’s compulsory to learn not just the national tongue, but one, sometimes two, foreign languages:

Belgium, Cyprus, Malta, Austria, Croatia, Italy, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Norway, Portugal, Spain, France, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Slovenia, Turkey, and the Netherlands.

If they can handle it, why not us? German students manage several languages without their math falling off the earth, and nobody is accusing the French of being under-educated. Children in Belgium start learning their second language at three years old.

Are the children of Europe uniquely placed to handle learning more than a single language without burning out, flunking, disgracing their family names – or are we just pretending when we say this is about anything more than intolerance?


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