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

This week is Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, Māori Language Week. Paul Brislen remembers growing up in Wales and why retaining and teaching Māori language is imperative to New Zealand’s cultural identity.

If you put your tongue just behind your upper teeth and blow air (and spit) around the sides in a manner not unlike that laughing noise you hear from Ernie on Sesame Street, you too can speak Welsh.

That’s what my Welsh teacher told me at Alexandra Junior School in Wrexham in 1978 when I was about ten years old. I can’t remember her name but I’m sure it was Mrs Jones and she held the secret to learning a new language that has stayed with me ever since. Language is the cornerstone of culture and without the ability to discuss ideas, plot and scheme, and woo those you’d like to woo in your own native tongue, then you’re lost as a person.

She was lovely, Mrs Jones, if that was her name. She made us laugh by talking about stupid English words and I’ve never looked at “sausage” quite the same way since.

That sound she made us learn is the famous “ll” sound that you get in Llewellyn or Llangollen and as Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has often discovered, if you’re not spitting in someone’s eye you’re not doing it right.

I spent three years growing up in Wales where I was addressed by teachers and friends alike as “The English” as if it was all my fault. “Go and set up the chairs in the hall and take The English with you.” I didn’t know it at the time but Wales was undergoing something of a mini renaissance and learning Welsh was the norm instead of something oddball and separatist. Most of the kids in my class spoke Welsh at home and if they didn’t, we all wanted to learn for one simple reason. When the teachers spoke to each other in classrooms it was Cymraeg they spoke, not English. We had to unlock the code so we could eavesdrop successfully.

Welsh was the language of home and hearth, of family, of the Eisteddfod, that festival of poetry, music, dance and yes, of culture. English is what you had to speak to communicate with those from across the border, the ones who introduced the term ‘welching’ on a bet and who named these people Welsh which means ‘stranger’.

Imagine that. Imagine being defined by your very name as someone not from here, when ‘here’ is your home. It’s the ultimate in linguistic alienation.

wales

The Welsh railway station with Britain’s longest placename, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Culture is more than just a collection of shared experiences in a common location. It’s about who we are as a people and that determination is rooted in the language.

That’s one of the reasons why colonisers outlaw the native tongue as the first move in conquering the population. If they can’t speak that heathen language then they can’t plot against us.

Protecting and nurturing your language should be a major part of any sensible programme to rejuvenate your culture. In Wales, they’ve taken it to what has been described as an almost apartheid level of separatism. Road signs and public forms are all bilingual and twice the length they would otherwise be, yet that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In 1865 a group of Welsh people fled the motherland and moved to Patagonia in South America. There they established the first and only Welsh colony with one goal in mind – to preserve their native culture and language. Legend has it that one of the first Argentine pilots shot down in the Falklands War went by the name of Jones. I haven’t been able to confirm it but it’s entirely possible. The Welsh take their language very seriously.

Today, we all stand on a crossroads of culture. The internet enables us to stay connected, to find our tribe no matter whether it’s a tribe based on family, geography, language, hair colour, sporting affiliation, handedness or even whether it’s a duck or a rabbit on the flag. We can preserve so-called minority cultures because we all live in a minority culture.

On the other hand, such access is overwhelming and for many, that sense of belonging never arrives and instead is replaced with an alienation. Putting the anti back in social media. We become enamoured of celebrities and culture that might not be our own but certainly has currency in this new internet age. If television has colonised our subconscious, the internet has taken all our cultures and squished them together like so much Play-Doh.

Children perform a haka for Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall during the 'Tea With Taranaki' event at Brooklands Park on November 9, 2015 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Children perform a haka for Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall during the ‘Tea With Taranaki’ event at Brooklands Park on November 9, 2015 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to us as a culture, to decide what we will keep and what we’ll let melt away. Nobody else is going to come out of the woodwork and say “we will protect New Zealand’s cultural identity” so it’s up to us and for me, a large part of that belonging is the Māori language.

If we want to avoid the disenfranchisement that appears to be sweeping the western world of late we need an engaged and active population who know where they stand and what they stand for. If we are to understand culture we must understand and support our language and that means teaching Māori to everyone in schools and doing more than just having a Māori Language Week and singing along with the national anthem at the rugby.

And, as they say in the valleys, “Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon” or to you lot, “a nation without language is a nation without heart.”

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