26 July 2012
We often get greatest wisdom about education from people outside of education and the recent statement from Hon Tim Groser was just another instance of this.
“All New Zealand students should be learning te Reo Māori,” he said. No ifs no buts.
His reasoning was that in a global world that is multilingual we need a community that is linguistically able to operate with ease and comfort in a range of language settings. He is of course right in this.
Students who can and do learn French and German are also developing a language facility that has these characteristics but is less useful in terms of the fabric of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Bilingual brains are better brains and only a very small number of countries speak only one language. There is that old quip that if you speak many languages you are multilingual, if you speak two languages you are bilingual and if you speak one language you are English. There is some truth in this as the pattern of monolinguals is more aggressively present in English-speaking countries than in others. Well, that used to be true but it has been challenged by two key features of the world we live in.
There has been a world-wide resurgence of indigenous languages in that set of Anglophone countries. This phenomenon would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and 1960s when it was thought that speaking a language other than English was an educational handicap. We now rejoice in this country in Māori medium television and radio, in availability of te Reo Māori printed media, and in a younger generation which generally has an ease with the notion that New Zealand has two key languages and three official languages.
The young ones are very different in this respect from the older generations who still phone talkback radio to campaign about the signing of “two anthems” or write to the newspaper complaining when it has printed its masthead in te Reo Māori to mark the start of te wiki o te Reo Māori.
The other key change is the pervasive migration of it around the modern world. In New Zealand our language landscape has been greatly enriched by the presence of the languages of the Pacific, by languages from Asia and Europe and India and many other communities. We are the better for this and a student who has learnt a second language is more able (and willing) to tolerate other languages and even a little more disposed to relate to cultural difference. In short, the fabric of our community is improved when students learn a second language.
Migration has both enriched us by the importation of other languages but also challenged us. We must urgently address the issue of teaching mother tongue languages to our New Zealand linguistically different groups. Urgent in this regard is Cook Island Māori and Niuean. But Samoan, Tongan, and soon Chinese will be pressing for urgent attention. Why wait until language facility is lost before reacting?
But let’s deal with the question that the second language to be learnt should be Māori. Well, it makes sense. Many living languages are now used across the spectrum of daily life across New Zealand. That is not to say that each and every home uses it, far from it, but a student learning has to make very little effort to have contact with it. Furthermore, learning a second language is known to have an impact on ability with the first language.
Why is this? Well the act of learning a new language is the process of constantly asking the questions (to oneself): In what ways is this new language the same as or different from the language I know? In what ways does this language work that are different to the ways the language I know works?
If we want high levels of language ability in our community we need to have a goal that each and every student would learn a second language and In New Zealand the argument that this should be Māori is compelling. Now what about the question of how long should this learning continue. I would argue that it should continue for all 13 years of compulsory schooling after having started in pre-school. Language ability continues to develop and grow and the way to best help this is to be consciously studying two languages – for most students this would be English and Māori, for others it is best to be the community language of the home and English (e.g. Samoan and English, Tongan and English).
Back in the 1980s I was on a Form 6 & 7 English Syllabus Committee that proposed a language programme in which English was compared with Māori – the theory was that such a linguistic study would increase a student’s knowledge about language and have the added benefit of it being about two languages that were firmly bedded into New Zealand. There was wide support for it until the politicians got hold of it, aided and abetted by a small group of teachers who resisted change not only in this matter but in most. David Lange, PM and Minister of Education at the time, lost his nerve and sacked the committee. That made that language issue go away – or did it?
E ngā Akoranga. Akohia te Reo nā te mea he oranga kei reira.