Skip to content

Tag: language learning

Talk-ED: Babble, Babel, Babble


Over the past week one education topic keeps on cropping up in my life – bilingualism.

First  I read a thesis that emphasises that students who are learning English as an additional language are not disadvantaged when it comes to academic achievement.  Then I attend a lecture where all the whys and wherefores of bilingualism and its place in life and in schools is outlined clearly and with some force.  I get up this morning and the newspaper has a major article on bilingualism in an Auckland school and notes the various successful diplomats that have been fluently competent in the linguistic sense.

Monolingualism is the “English Disease” or should that be “unease”?

People of English background do not accept generally that they are in a minority in terms of language competence when compared to say the native population of Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, or the vast majority of Europe.  No, we speak and use the finest language in the world and that is the end of the discussion.

But a truth that one day will dawn on us is that until New Zealand becomes wholeheartedly bilingual, we will continue to stutter along at the bottom of the Pacific.  And never has the opportunity presented itself in the ways that does now.

The tired old arguments against Te Reo Maori have somewhat subsided and a new generation is coming through that has a comfort, but often not a competence, in that official language of New Zealand.  There are high levels of competence in a range of Pacific languages from the fluency of the older generations to the passive bilingualism of many of the young members of those communities. We have a vibrant Chinese community bringing with them a language of global and future significance.  Similarly, the Indian community continues to grow and with it higher levels of presence of that great sub-continent.

The other factor that enters the discussion at this point is the fact that we struggle to get adequate levels of competence in literacy from so many of our young.

One answer to lifting achievement in our schools might be to take seriously once and for all the teaching of second languages to students in schools. A number of reasons commend this idea at this time.

First the general educational reasons for doing this are compelling.  Bilingual brains are better brains – there is plenty of evidence of this.  So it would make our young people sharper and fitter academically.

Secondly, if we are serious about development of competence in English we had better address the issue of linguistic competence generally and one way of doing this is through the teaching of languages. Students come to understand how language works not through bucket loads of grammar and rulkes but through understanding how and why languages are different. How many out there say they know about grammar but would also attest to the fact that they picked this up through learning French, or German – for this is what “second languages” was defined as for much of our history.

Thirdly, we have a wide and growing supply of people who are competent to teach those languages. They are out there in the community rather than in the colleges of education and the schools. Yet again the question is raised – who should be teachers?  Again the answer is – a group that includes wider sets of skills than the traditional trawling of the ranks of the graduates that the academy produces.  Finland has all students learning Swedish (and vice versa in Sweden) in the last three years of primary school.

Fourthly, the educational practices of the 18th and 19th centuries play a strong part in the decline of Te Reo Maori competence among so many Maori up to the 1960s when such pioneers as Richard Benton starting to draw attention to the “state’ of the language. New Zealand seems to be achieving a remarkable feat in reversing that trend arresting the slide of a language to being a museum language.

Are we going to stand by and again see this scenario played out with Pasifika communities.  Already there is concern about the levels of language capability among the young in the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau communities.  Sheer numbers mask a similar worry but perhaps at lower levels of proportion among the Tonga and Samoa communities.

We have an opportunity to do so much right this time. To deny continued growth in the languages of the homes to those whose first language is not English is simply to place restrictions around their development of English and all that goes with that situation in the schools and other places of learning.  The depressed performance of Maori over a long period of time in this country is to a large extent due to this very factor.

But it requires action.  I am sick and tired of all the lip-service that is paid to language learning, of all the homage paid to our few linguistic heroes, and of the disproportion levels of failure foisted on non-English language groups by our language practices.  I am embarrassed by our continued ignoring of the language skill in our communities and the persistence here in little-England of adamant monolingualism.

Ireland, Wales, most of Europe, significant areas of India, Scandanavia, some parts of the USA – many other places just get on with it.

When it comes to language its time for the talking to stop and the action to start.


Leave a Comment

Pathways-ED: E ngā Akoranga. Akohia te Reo nā te mea he oranga kei reira.


Stuart Middleton
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.


Leave a Comment