Paying Lip-service to Learning and Teaching Languages

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

16 January 2018

One might have thought that New Zealand had by now understood the critical importance of teaching languages other than English.

The shameful shepherding of Te Reo Māori towards a point where there was a possibility that it might be lost as a language that was used, just as the languages of Wales and Hawai’I had become was probably closer than the public understood. Reaching that point is one of potential social devastation. The performance of the NZ Education system and its poor, even lamentable results for Māori over many decades, can be seen in some part as a consequence of an education system that used the first language of the colonising community while demanding that the indigenous and all new-comers learn in a second language.

More importantly, the road back from that point where the existence of a language is under threat is has been difficult, expensive and a burden borne disproportionately by the respective communities. But attitudes are changing, actions are being taken, and status to Te Reo Māori is being accorded. Over a long period of time the language will survive and even flourish. Is New Zealand going to sit around and see successive generation of children from the Pacific go down that same route? New Zealand as a South Pacific Island nation has special responsibilities in this!

As a country we have only nibbled at recognising other languages publicly – but it is only a start in comparison to the efforts in Ireland and Wales. We have only nibbled at the notion of bilingual signage, simultaneous translation, and use of other languages on public occasions. Progress is seen mostly with the official languages. Canada has found that it comes easily when you want to do it!

As a country we still suppress the first / community / home languages of many children in schools –thousands of them. Each day children leave the security of their homes where they understand the language being used to walk into a foreign land where a new and different language is used. At the end of the day they walk home to India, to Samoa, to Somalia, to….

We have shown little commitment to supporting (including teaching) Pasifika languages in schools. This is reprehensible in light of the responsibilities New Zealand has as a South Pacific Island nation.

It is not that nothing is being done. But the scale is inadequate, the speed with initiatives too slow and the resources too scarce.

“We have a shortage of teachers, let’s make that a priority” is the cry. When it comes to the teaching of community languages this is simply untrue. The different communities that reflect the array of languages has within its ranks large numbers of members of the community who with resources and with relatively light support could teach these languages to children. But of course, teaching remains the closed shop and that has in part been a contributory feature that has exacerbated our slow progress with languages. The conventional programmes taught by the conventional (and talented) supply of teachers has not yet addressed the language issue. So we need to work differently. Scandinavia sets the standard for utilising the community resources in languages to see that those entering its school without the language of the school are supported. The way is there but we now need to find a will!

Quite simply, bilingual brains are better brains. A student’s strength in a new, second, or third language is dependent on the strength of the student’s first language. Suppress that language, the language of the home, and you suppress cognitive growth and the capacity to learn.

Google Joshua Fishman to find out how the pattern of language loss for communities takes only 2-3 generations to have become an obdurate problem for communities. We know what will happen. We know what needs to be done. But we yet have little appetite to get on with the job of reflecting the pluralist society we have become. Let’s do it in a manner that celebrates our diversity and acknowledges the important role and place in our community of difference.

One comment

  1. Jim Doyle says:

    I was brought up in Ireland where the Irish language has traditionally been a highly emotive topic. Since the mid 19 century the struggle for independence was centred largely on promoting Gaelic culture in general and the Irish language in particular. This approach represented the glue that held the struggle together. This was tribal, visceral stuff.

    When I was brought up in Ireland the Irish language was compulsory right up to the end of secondary school. Bad mistake. All that did was create resentment. I knew nobody who did not at least slightly resent the compulsion.

    Without a doubt, the preservation of a ‘native’ language is a laudable ambition. But it needs to be kept in perspective, especially in countries where English is the working language. There was a time in Ireland when fluency in the Irish language was seen by some as making you more Irish. This, of course was nonsense.

    The English language is unique in the sense that it is the single most useful language to have. Those countries that are English speaking and also have a ‘native’ language (and there are plenty) should be lauded for making efforts to preserve and promote their ‘native’ language but they should avoid reading too much into its value.

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