Nan Bella at Waiwhetu School, July 1991. Image: Mark Coote

Compulsion could kill the Māori language

Paul Moon, author of the controversial new book Killing Te Reo Maori, argues that making te reo Māori a compulsory school subject is the worst thing we could do to preserve the language.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, “te reo Māori is dead, and we have killed it.” Well, not quite, but it is possibly only a matter of time before the last rites are pronounced on our indigenous language. How, then, do we revive this taonga, which currently looks to be in terminal decline? So far, none of the efforts – either individually or cumulatively – has arrested the drop in the number of te reo speakers. Between 1996 and 2013, the proportion of the Māori population able to converse in the language decreased from 25.0 per cent to 21.3 per cent. The number of Kōhanga Reo have fallen from their high-water mark of 765 in 1996 to around 460 currently, and to put the language in a global context, te reo is spoken by 0.0016 per cent of the world’s population. The challenges facing it can therefore hardly be overstated.

So what is the solution? Last year, the Greens announced their support for te reo being made available “to every New Zealand child” through having it as a compulsory subject in the state school system. The party argued that “[w]e have a responsibility to ensure that our indigenous language thrives in Aotearoa. Introducing all children to it at school is the best way to make that happen.”

However, the claim that compulsion is the “best way” to ensure that te reo “thrives” reveals an exceptional ignorance not only of the basic tenets of how languages function, but also the experience of compulsion for minority or indigenous languages in other countries,

Calls for compulsion represent scraping the barrel of language revitalisation options. They are an admission that the normal transmission mechanisms of the language have broken down. Restoring these mechanisms to the point where a language is thriving is a complex undertaking with low chances of success, but is certainly something that no amount of compulsion can ever remedy.

Of more direct concern, though, is the fact that compulsion in schools has a consistent record of failure when it comes to reviving indigenous languages. After the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921, for example, Irish was made compulsory, but this did little to advance the cause of the indigenous language, and eventually did not achieve the hoped-for revitalisation of Irish, which after close to century of compulsion is in steep decline.

In Singapore, under the Mother Tongue Language policy, all students are required to study their respective official mother-tongue language. Tamil (one of the country’s four official languages) is a compulsory subject in schools for Tamil students, and is available in most public schools. Yet, despite this compulsion, between 2000 and 2010, the use of Tamil as a household language among Singapore’s Tamil population fell from 42.9 per cent to 36.7 per cent, and that was with increased government funding and new strategies to encourage the language’s revitalisation.

The same trend is evident in Luxembourg, where the indigenous language – Luxembourgish – is now classified as “endangered”. This is despite it having been a compulsory subject in schools since 1912, as well as having been a requirement for naturalisation from 1938, and being declared a national language in 1983.

In 1990, Welsh was made compulsory in Wales for school students. However, even with other state-sponsored measures to support the language’s revival, the 2011 census revealed there had been a dramatic decline in both the absolute number of Welsh speakers, and their proportion in the population of Wales as a whole.

These examples confirm that compulsion – even when accompanied by the full armoury of language-revitalisation strategies, and even when the language in question is that of the majority culture in the country – fails in its sole objective.

There is another dimension to this failure, however, that is less apparent. The political capital expended in order to get an indigenous language made compulsory in a state school system is enormous. Once the advocates of such a policy have accomplished their aim, they are much less likely to have enough political leverage left to achieve anything else on such a scale.

This adds to the danger of such a policy. Were it to be implemented in New Zealand, we could be left with a system of compulsion that is destined to fail in its goal of revitalising te reo, and with insufficient political currency remaining to advance the cause of the language in more effective ways. Allied to this problem is the belief that compulsion – despite absolute evidence to the contrary – is a sort of meta-solution to the decline of indigenous languages. That is just a vain hope.

Compulsion is the sort of approach that tends to be favoured by totalitarian regimes, which feel the need to change something, but lack both the insight to diagnose the problem and the acuity to effect a solution. There are possible means by which te reo can be rescued from imminent extinction, but compulsion will never be one of these.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Auckland University of Technology

Killing Te Reo Maori by Dr Paul Moon is available at Unity Books.


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