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Image: Archi Banal
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OPINIONSocietyJanuary 15, 2024

A guide to making te reo Pākehā an official language of Aotearoa

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Promoting English as a living language and encouraging its use in schools, courts and other institutions will be a challenging process, warns former race relations commissioner Joris de Bres.

The coalition government has announced its intention to make English an official language of New Zealand. This could be achieved with a very short law simply declaring it to be so. But that could be seen as tokenism unless accompanied by the kinds of measures that apply to the current official languages, especially te reo Māori, which the government is eager not to privilege over English.

A more thorough approach, in line with the principle of equal citizenship (under which the proposal falls in the National-NZ First coalition agreement), would be to follow the provisions of Te Ture mō te Reo Māori/Māori Language Act (Te Ture) and ensure the two languages receive equal treatment.

That means starting with a bilingual name for the legislation – say, the English Language Act/Te Ture mō te Reo Pākehā (the Act). It may be problematic for some who don’t like the word Pākehā, but it’s the most common name for the English language in te reo.

The Act will need a purpose. For Te Ture it is to affirm the status of the Māori language as the indigenous language of New Zealand, as a taonga of iwi and Māori, as a language valued by the nation, as an official language of New Zealand, and to provide means to support and revitalise it.

Declaring the English language to be valued by the nation and an official language of New Zealand is easy. But what is to be done about the status question? English doesn’t meet the definition of indigenous, so an equivalent will need to be found.

The English language came to New Zealand as the language of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom and Ireland, early Pākeha settlers, and the colonial government. Its status might best be described as the colonial language of New Zealand.

We need to ask for whom the English language is a taonga. For many New Zealanders, it is not their first language. Their taonga language is different. English is a taonga primarily for those who whakapapa back to the tribes of the British Isles and to the settlers who brought the language from there. In short, it is a taonga for the Original Tangata Tiriti (OTTs), as distinct from the Tangata Whenua.

Te Ture recognises iwi and Māori as the kaitiaki of te reo Māori. Logically, the kaitiaki of the English language are the OTT’s. To define their tribes may be more difficult, but at the very least they could be aggregated into the English, the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, notwithstanding that three of these groups have a language other than English as well.

Te Ture contains an acknowledgment by the Crown of the detrimental effects of its past policies and practices that have, over the generations, failed actively to protect and promote the Māori language and encourage its use by iwi and Māori. There is no direct equivalence here, as the English language has been actively promoted through the education system, the media and in public communication. However, it would be appropriate to acknowledge past misuses of the language both as a tool of colonial oppression and as a means of discriminating against non-English speaking peoples, such as Chinese migrants. A commitment not to use the English language for such purposes in future would be a positive statement of the Crown’s responsibility.

‘Reasonable notice should be given if someone wishes to speak English in the courtroom, and qualified interpreters should be provided who can translate English into te reo’

The right to speak Māori in legal proceedings is affirmed by Te Ture. Such a right should also be available to all. As required by Te Ture, reasonable notice should be given if someone wishes to speak English and qualified interpreters should be provided who can translate English into te reo. It should be noted that, as with Māori, this does not confer a right to be addressed in English or for proceedings to be recorded in English.

Te Ture contains guidance for departments of state. Similarly, the Act should require departments, as far as is reasonably practical, to use the English language alongside te reo in the promotion of government services and the provision of information to the public. Government services should be made accessible to OTTs through the use of appropriate means (including the use of the English language).

Then there are the institutions established by Te Ture: Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori and Te Mātāwai. The role of an English Language Commission would be similar to Te Taura Whiri: to take steps to give effect to the status of English as an official language, and to promote English as a living language and an ordinary means of communication. This might include, for example, an annual English Language Week, an English Language Moment and English Language Awards. The commission would also certify translators and interpreters of English into te reo Māori.

An equivalent for Te Mātāwai will need careful thought, as its role will be to act on behalf of OTTs and their tribes, provide leadership in promoting the health and well-being of the English language for OTTs and their tribes and to support, inform and influence the Crown’s initiatives in protecting, promoting and revitalising the English language. The challenge lies in establishing representative structures for OTTs, their tribes and language organisations, to whom the equivalent of Te Mātāwai will be accountable. In the absence of existing structures, it may be necessary to provide a system whereby OTTs can register with their tribe in the same way that Māori have done in relation to Te Tiriti negotiations and settlements.

There are of course many other Māori language initiatives by government and by Māori. The method of appointment to some entities, specifically Te Māngai Pāho and the Māori Television Service, are prescribed in Te Ture. Others are governed by legislation such as the Broadcasting Act and the Education Act. An assessment will need to be made whether such bodies are required for the English language. Arguably, English language media are well established, and English medium schools, having been in existence since the time of Te Tiriti, are found the length and breadth of Aotearoa.

That brings us back to the purpose of the proposed legislation, which we need to be clear about. Te Ture mō te Reo Māori was passed because the language was under threat largely due to its suppression by the Crown. The NZ Sign Language Act was passed to give Deaf people access to justice and public services. They were made “official languages” to make officials take notice. The question has to be asked whether the English language, which is spoken by over four and a half million people in Aotearoa, dominates in most of our media and schools, and is the language used in almost all of our legislation, is in need of support, and whether OTTs are in danger of losing their taonga. Or is the purpose simply to ensure that Māori don’t get anything that OTTs don’t have, irrespective of need?

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