By Jean Balchin 25/01/2018

When I was 6, my family moved to Mangonui, a little fishing village in Doubtless Bay. Besides the world-class fish and chip shop and the clouds of sprats flying around under the surface of the water, I loved Mangonui for its embrace of te ao Māori (the Māori world).

I was a little Pakeha girl from the North Shore of Auckland, and I’d never heard te reo Māori spoken before. I’d never learnt the captivating story of the primordial parents, Ranginui and Papatuanuku. I’d only ever seen the haka being performed on television, but here it was, right in front of me, frightening and spellbinding.

Te ao Māori was a fresh, earthy way of learning and understanding the world, and I loved it. But it was not to last. After half a year, we moved down to Mangatangi, and I lost what te reo Maori I had. I forgot about the myths and legends, and te ao Maori seemed once again foreign and far away.

Recently, there has been great debate about whether te reo Māori should be made compulsory in public schools. The Greens, for example, want to see te reo Māori taught in all New Zealand public schools from years 1 to 10.

As Marama Davidson, the Greens’ spokesperson on Māori development pointed out, the 2013 census indicated that only 3.7% of New Zealanders spoke te reo Māori. As a proud New Zealander, I feel ashamed of myself for not being able to speak te reo Māori. I firmly believe we need to raise the value and status of the language in our communities and nationally.

There are scientifically proven cognitive benefits to learning a second language, from a boost in memory and decision-making skills, to a wider and more tolerant understanding of the world.

Moreover, students who develop equivalent skills in more than one language tend to be more creative and score higher than monolingual students in verbal and nonverbal tests. Learning te reo will propel students in their growth as learners and communicators. It will encourage students to ask questions, challenge themselves, and will provide another way to express oneself.

From Germany to Romania, children in most European countries are taught to speak more than one language. In 1981, only 500,000 Welsh could speak their own language. In 2000, the government introduced compulsory Welsh in schools up to the age of 16. Today, more than

700,000 Welsh can speak their language. The language revival of Welsh is an encouraging example of what can be achieved when the government and educational authorities recognise the value in preserving an indigenous language.

Vociferous and angry opponents of this idea will argue that Māori is not a ”useful” language to learn. I can already hear the cries of economically minded parents: ”Why not teach our children Mandarin, or something that will actually come in useful in their careers?”

Well, education isn’t just about pumping out money-making automatons. Our school curriculums should be nurturing well-rounded New Zealanders who understand our own history and are able to make more informed and compassionate decisions later in life.

Moreover, the status of te reo Māori as an official language means New Zealand citizens have the right to conduct their dealings with government agencies in te reo Māori. Thus, one could argue, there is an economic advantage to learning te reo Māori. Many agencies, including national and local government and courts of law, require their employees to have some degree of competence in te reo Māori.

I have no doubt that students, as I did, will gain an increased sense of belonging and pride as they come to value te reo Māori and our unique cultural heritage.

Given that our national identity as a multicultural society with roots in te ao Māori is marketed around the world, I believe we have an obligation to preserve te reo Māori.

Ko taku reo taku ohooho, ko taku reo taku mapihi mauria.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.

This article was originally published in the ODT, as part of Jean’s column, Tinker Tailor Student Spy.