New Zealand kids monolingual, missing out

By Lynley Hargreaves 29/07/2015

Associate Professor Sharon Harvey
Associate Professor Sharon Harvey

The Māori language is in a dire situation and the 2013 census saw a further drop in numbers of Māori speaking Māori. In 2015’s Māori language week, Auckland University of Technology Associate Professor Sharon Harvey takes on popular misconceptions, explains how a national languages policy would increase our awareness of languages overall, and tells us how Māori might figure in such a policy.

We have Māori immersion classes at schools, a Māori television channel – isn’t the Māori language doing well?

No, people have an idea that the Māori language is doing well after a huge amount of energy that was put in through the 1970s to the 1990s. But actually in official terms it’s considered severely endangered. When a language is in an English-dominant environment like New Zealand and is indigenous to this place – that is it is not spoken elsewhere, it will take considerable effort on all sides to sustain and extend the language, both in terms of numbers of speakers and proficiency levels. Professor Richard Benton has explained in a recent report on Te Reo Māori in Tāmaki Makau Rau that it’s a matter of numbers: the fewer people you have to speak to in the language the less likely you are to speak it. So we need more speakers of Māori especially given the 2013 census has seen a drop in numbers of Māori speaking Māori.

However, it’s good to be positive and look to other examples of language revitalisation e.g. in Ireland and Wales. A famous New Zealand sociolinguist now living and working in Israel, Professor Bernard Spolsky, has written about the revitalisation of Hebrew which was a sacred liturgical language with no speakers and was revived as a lingua franca from the eighteenth century onwards. Of course now it is a first language for around five million speakers and an additional language for several million more. So there is hope if we take the revitalisation of Māori seriously.

Should Māori be compulsory at school?

The numbers game is an important reason why Māori should be compulsory in schools. More people need to be able to speak te reo and use it in all domains to ensure its status as a living language that has a secure future here in Aotearoa. There are other important reasons as well: it’s difficult to see how we can call ourselves a bicultural nation if we are not bilingual. Language carries culture and culture carries language. Te reo Māori is central to New Zealand identity and, as a member of the family of Polynesian languages, gives speakers access to other languages of the Pacific.

Because of so much neglect over the years we have a teacher capacity issue and of course priority must be given to high quality te reo education for Māori students in the first instance. But there needs to be a strategic plan to grow this capacity to ensure that high quality Māori teaching is available in all our schools for all our students. It seems a pipe dream right now but where there’s a will … If you look at Māori language learning in mainstream New Zealand classrooms there is currently no proficiency requirement for teachers and students can end up being taught the same level and domains of language, every year right through primary school and further.

Wouldn’t it be more useful to teach say, Mandarin, at schools rather than Maori?

It’s shouldn’t be a competition between Māori and other languages. In fact if New Zealand had always been more focused on multilingualism, the Māori language might have done a lot better. Many of us would like to see three languages taught to young New Zealanders. This means learning English to a high level, having at least a good proficiency in Māori, and learning one other language.

We need clear pathways for language learning when children go on to other schools, so it’s not just haphazard. There are already some local agreements, for example an intermediate school offering Spanish because the high school does. If we don’t provide clear pathways when students transition from one school to another students won’t be able to improve their language proficiencies.

Isn’t English the default international language?

While English is the lingua franca internationally at the moment, our inability to be able to understand other cultures because of our public and widespread actual monolingualism could be hurting our economic performance as well. We’re a country that relies on trade with a myriad of markets. Some of our most important are non-Anglo countries. While many of those people do speak English our inability to speak other languages means we really have only superficial understandings of other cultures, tastes and motivations.

The real travesty is that we have young people in our schools who have many languages that are internationally important but we do little to maintain and extend those languages through the education system.

Most of the rest of the world can speak more than one language. Young people educated in Asia, Europe, South America and even the UK generally have two, if not three languages, Australia has had a language policy for decades, the UK has made learning an additional language compulsory from the age of seven. Being a very monolingual island in multilingual seas – that’s a real negative for us in international terms.

Who needs to push for a national languages policy – Government or local communities?

There’s a lot more work to be done on what a national language policy looks like and I don’t think politicians are considering this very carefully yet. We need a language lens on all our policy areas: trade, labour, justice, education, foreign affairs etc. This is work that needs to be done between government and communities through widespread discussion and consultation.

Education is one pillar of a national languages policy, but we also need to bring a languages view right across the different sectors, for example justice, tourism and international trade. We should ask what is needed in all those policy fields, and what kind of discussions ought to take place. Of course putting serious national effort into the revitalisation and everyday widespread use of Māori would be an important part of such a policy.

See the Royal Society of New Zealand  Languages in Aotearoa New Zealand paper which outlines the major issues facing language practices in New Zealand.

These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.