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Why Kiwi Kids Should Be Learning Te Reo

by Emma Gorowski 🎁 about a month ago in politics
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Let's stop using this debate as a signifier for our wider views on indigenous issues

Waitangi Treaty grounds

If you’re anything like me, you learned a little reo Māori at primary school; basic things like greetings, days of the week, months of the year, and colours. Yet, because you never used these terms, you only remember some of the greetings and the first few colours mentioned in the song ‘Ma is White.’ You’ve also picked up a smattering of other terms that are commonly used such as aroha, mana, whānau, iwi, taonga.

You might even hold some views on Māori issues that would be considered right-wing. Perhaps you want the parliamentary seats abolished, and everyone placed on a single electoral roll. Perhaps it bothers you that prayers in public sector workplaces and state schools are ok, provided they’re said in te reo. If so, we’re in some agreement.

I think for many who hold these, or farther right, views it’s easy to automatically adopt a certain stance when the idea of compulsory te reo in schools comes up. It’s easy to grasp onto ideas that seem to make common sense, like questioning why, of all the languages in the world, we should require our kids to learn one with such a small number of speakers. But your views on the status of te reo need not be determined by, or used as a signal for, your views on other Māori issues. Only about 18 months ago, I held the opinion I think many of us hold: that learning te reo is a great idea, for Māori and for anyone else interested, but that we shouldn’t be forcing it on to our kids. I still feel reasonable people can hold this view, or can feel that they’d prefer their child to learn another language, without being racist. But I’ve come to think differently about whether we should make teaching te reo compulsory.

It’s been a journey. I started out under the impression that teaching a small amount of te reo, like what I learned in school, was already compulsory. When I learned it wasn’t, I thought it should be, but was happy for things to be left at that low level. Now, I hope for a future Aotearoa where everyone is fluent in te reo Māori.

I’ve been interested in linguistics for a long time now. It started with an interest in the history of the English language; where our words have come from, how they’ve changed, and how our language has spread around the world. Over time, I began to develop an interest in linguistics in general. I loved learning about the different language families, about differences between languages, about how the huge variety of languages across our planet have developed and, perhaps most interestingly, about how the language we speak influences more than just the range of sounds we’re comfortable making. So, intellectually, I understood the benefits that could be gained from learning languages, or from being bi- or multilingual. Not only does speaking another language bring a host of cognitive advantages, it truly changes the way we think about the world.

For example, we English speakers are used to imagining time as operating on a horizontal left to right continuum, with the past behind our point along it, and the future ahead. Yet speakers of some languages imagine it goes in the opposite direction, or that the continuum is vertical. There’s an Aboriginal language that, instead of describing things as being on the ‘left’ or ‘right’ will say they’re ‘north-east’‘ or ‘south-west.’

You’ll probably know that many other languages have grammatical gender, where nouns have different pronouns depending on whether they’re categorised as masculine, feminine, or neutral. A study asked monolingual speakers of Italian or German, or bilingual people who spoke both to explain why they thought certain words were assigned a certain gender in either language. The word for ‘chair’ is masculine in German, and feminine in Italian. The participants who only spoke German tended to think chairs really are masculine in some way, and try to justify this with statements like that ‘chairs are strong and support others.’ Those who only spoke Italian thought chairs really are feminine and gave reasons like that ‘chairs can be elegant.’ To these people, their own language simply reflected reality. The bilingual speakers, however, understood the noun had simply been arbitrarily assigned to one category or another.

It took me learning a language that is very different to my own to really get these concepts, rather than just knowing about them at a distance. I’ve been learning Turkish, not a language that would be considered very useful for a kiwi with no immediate plans to move to Turkey to be learning. I’m doing it because I love the language, and I’m enjoying the process of learning it both as a mental exercise, a tool for learning more about linguistics in general, a way of being able to better understand Turkish media, and a way for my husband and I to communicate secretly in public. Often I’ll be learning about a new feature of the grammar, or way in which a word is constructed and think that it’s strange and somehow inferior to what I’m used to before something we do in English that is equally illogical, or uses the same logic springs to mind! When you view something as the normal way of doing things it’s easy not to be critical of it. Turkish doesn’t have gendered pronouns; whether I’m talking about a ‘he’ or a ‘she,’ I will simply use the pronoun ‘o’. And everyone just goes about their lives normally! Kind of funny when you think about how outraged some English speakers get when asked to use gender neutral personal pronouns. Another study seems to indicate that the more gender marking is in a language, the quicker kids tend to learn to identify their own gender, and the gender of other kids. One way I try to practice my skills, is by trying to translate Turkish songs. While the themes are very similar to those in English songs the specific ways in which the singers express their feelings, the typical phrases etc, are sometimes things we would never say in English. It’s great to have a whole new way to express yourself, and a wider range of ways to do so. I’m obviously not knowledgeable enough about te reo Māori to be able to describe exactly how learning it could influence our children’s thinking and expand their ways of expressing themselves, but influence and expand it surely will. I did take some brief lessons a couple of years ago and, while I’ve forgotten many of the actual phrases I learned, I did find it fascinating learning about how the words were constructed. So much of it was so clearly influenced by traditional Māori worldviews and spirituality. While I’m not a spiritual person myself, I don’t agree with many of the concepts behind how English words were constructed either but understanding and being able to draw on a wider range of concepts, is always a positive.

I’m not currently making an effort to learn te reo myself. I’m a busy adult, and it’s not where my personal interest is drawn in terms of how I spend my limited free time. But I would love to have learned more in school, and I think our kids should have that opportunity. What I am trying to work on is pronouncing words such as the names of towns and landmarks correctly. The sad thing is, I was always doing this as a kid. Then I learned that the way I was saying the words wasn’t the way most people said it and I fell in with the crowd because I didn’t want to seem like that person who was trying to come across as super culturally aware, the person being a try hard. I’m also trying to make sure I use macrons correctly. If I can use different symbols when writing French words, or when writing Turkish (even though native speakers often don’t — they know what they’re doing much better than I ever will, I still need the pronunciation hints), I can sure as hell use them in Māori.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’re thinking ‘I get it, learning languages is great. But hardly anyone speaks Māori fluently, so I would prefer my kid learn another language, one that will open more doors.’ And if you have the time, money or ability to enable your kid to speak another, different language you absolutely should. But here’s why it’s te reo that should be compulsory in public schools.

First off, before we even come to why it should be te reo, let’s make it clear why learning some second language should be compulsory for our kids. With English being something of a lingua franca globally, there’s a massive privilege that comes with being a native English speaker. However, there’s also a slight drawback. There’s less impetus to learn another tongue. Particularly if you live in an isolated country where few people speak anything else, and even fewer don’t speak English. Yet choosing to rest on our English-speaking privilege puts us at a cognitive disadvantage. In 2013, only 23% of New Zealanders reported that they were able to speak another language. Globally, people who are monolingual and not actively involved in learning a second language are considered to be a minority. This means that currently, while so many around the world are getting all the benefits that come with knowing another language, the majority of kiwi kids aren’t. This is why we should require a second language to be taught to our kids.

And if we’re going to make learning another language compulsory, I think ideally we’d have everyone learn the same language, and I’ll explain why. But first, why should it be te reo? One reason is that there’s no other clear option of what one other language it could be. It’s the language of our indigenous people, it’s the only language that is totally unique to us. If you don’t think te reo should be taught to everyone, how are you going to make the case that some other language should be? What would make your chosen language a more fitting choice than another with, say, a similar number of speakers?

What many people seem to forget, when lamenting the ‘uselessness’ of learning te reo is that if all kids are taught to speak it eventually all kids will be able to… speak it. The problem of not having many other people with whom you can use the language is then solved.

Let’s try to be ambitious and imagine a future when an entire generation of kids has come out of school, all having learned te reo to fluency. At this point, it simply wouldn’t be true that there wouldn’t be jobs where a knowledge of te reo would be required or beneficial. Fluent parents would often speak English and te reo to their children, meaning future teachers would need to understand the language in order to consistently understand their pupils. Some of the kids who leave school would want to become actors, comedians, journalists — and some of them will create media in te reo. They’ll need just as many people on their production teams as English language media does and your kid will be able to consume this media. I would love to see a historical drama set in New Zealand before Europeans arrived or in the early 19th century where the Māori characters don’t unrealistically speak in English. I’ve recently watched series in English, Turkish, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Norwegian. People all over the world have similarly varied Netflix lists. There’s no reason why, if we make sure it’s actually good, people in other countries wouldn’t watch a te reo show. Even in jobs where te reo is not required, it would be normal in such a future to hear it used everyday. Therefore, if you don’t understand it, you’re going to be at something of a disadvantage. You wouldn’t be able to understand all of what your colleagues say, and you wouldn’t have as wide a range of ways to concisely express your ideas as they do. This means people moving here from overseas would often want to learn te reo too. They’d need more teachers. Having everyone being able to use two languages fluently, one of which is the language of our indigenous people would cement our sense of nationhood in such a unique way and would earn us a great deal of positive attention and interest.

Of course, we can’t achieve all this anytime soon. We don’t have the teaching capability, for one. But we can start actively working to grow it, with a clear vision of just how much could be done. Learning te reo isn’t going to make your kid’s English worse, it’s going to make it better. Learning te reo isn’t going to prevent your kid being able to learn Mandarin, it’s going to make it easier. It isn’t going to prevent them learning maths, they’ll be able to write out their maths problems in two languages.

Note: This post was originally uploaded on Medium in late 2018. Some of the information in this post comes from a previous episode of the Hidden Brain podcast (one of my absolute favourites) titled ‘Lost in Translation.’ I highly recommend giving it a listen, as there’s even more interesting info than what I could share here.


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Emma Gorowski 🎁

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