Te Wīki o Te Reo Māori

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Members of Nga Tamatoa on Parliament steps, Wellington, 1972.

What an interesting Māori Language Week 2012. Locally it seems to have brought out the best and worst characteristics of many of us.

I have been impressed with the number of proud Pākehā who have defended the need for their children to learn and use Te Reo Māori, I’ve also been encouraged by the maturity and generosity of many Māori who could have taken exception to some of the attitudes expressed about the place of Te Reo Māori in modern New Zealand.

I feel for those who have said they are not interested in their children learning Te Reo – no one should be treated as they have been, those who have criticised or shunned them should be ashamed of themselves. We all have a right to express our opinion and while it may not be popular, everyone deserves some basic respect.

While I disagree strongly with some of the views expressed, those who have a problem with even a small amount of Māori language being taught in publicly funded early childhood centres are still entitled to make choices about what they want for their children. We have a national curriculum in New Zealand that recognises the unique place of Māori and requires teachers to promote the appreciation of Te Reo – so those parents who don’t want it need to keep their children away from centres required to adhere to the national curriculum. I’ve been surprised that those arguing against children ‘being forced’ to learn a language don’t apply the same logic to all children being forced to learn English or being forced to learn a wide range of other skills and values.

There is clearly so much work still to be done – on ensuring Te Reo Māori survives as a living language, on increasing the understanding between people from different cultures within our community and on raising awareness about power and the politics of privilege.

While most people in Aotearoa say it is important to preserve Te Reo, most of us don’t actually act that way. I agree with Clare Radomske that to save the language it is going to take a huge effort.

The reality is most people don’t prioritise the retention and revitalisation of Te Reo. Many have other priorities like just getting food on the table and keeping a roof over our head, some are just more interested in other things so don’t prioritise learning and using the language.

I find the utilitarian arguments interesting. Do those who suggest Japanese or Spanish being more ‘useful’ than Te Reo have a focus on employment and commercial application, is it about improving cross-cultural understanding or is it that they see no point in learning and using a form of language that is threatened with becoming purely institutional like Latin? It seems from my perspective that a basic appreciation and correct application of Māori phrases and words is becoming increasingly important in New Zealand. Employers in the media, tourism, hospitality, public transport, education, law and medicine seem to be at least encouraging if not expecting staff to be able to pronounce Māori names and phrases with confidence. As the Māori economy ramps up post-settlement, business people are going to need to be able to engage respectfully with Māori – entrepreneurs conversant in Te Reo may enhance commercial relationships.

Every language is a repository for unique ways of seeing the world. Part of the importance of retaining languages from my perspective is that they are an almost divine gift to humanity – an essential part of the tapestry of human experience that will be poorer should that way of understanding reality be lost.

New Zealand is the only place in the world where Te Reo Māori will ever have a special status and where, thanks to generations of Māori who have refused to let it go, the public can expect to benefit from the distinct perspectives on the natural world, human relationships, arts and science, that the indigenous languages and cultures of Aotearoa offer us all.

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