Compulsory Te Reo? Can it really be done?
The Greens want to see compulsory Te Reo language classes in schools. Reporter JULIAN LEE, who himself is endeavouring to learn Maori in a month, takes a look at how viable the Green's idea is.
When the Greens announced last week that they would be pursuing a policy of compulsory Te Reo language classes in school, they hit a very raw nerve in the national psyche.
The Press received a letter from the public on Thursday saying as much. "No child of mine will ever speak Maori in my home."
Allen Chant, of Ilam, Christchurch, was responding to an editorial in this week's The Press which argued in favour of making Te Reo more widely available in schools.
Chant's comment is incorrect. He is already speaking Maori in his home – whenever almost any native New Zealand animal is mentioned.
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Chant's comment does reflect a divided view on the future of Te Reo.
What will elevate the Greens' policy from a pipe dream to reality will all depend on one thing – its practicality, both political and material.
Unfortunately the Greens haven't offered up anything on this front yet. They haven't said how much it will cost, or the kind of difficulties involved. They say they'll work on that over the next year.
Associate Professor Una Cunningham, a specialist in language learning at the University of Canterbury, says the idea is feasible but would have to overcome a big challenge – an almost complete lack of historical precedent.
"It's the invaders' language, or the language of power, that people have to learn. It doesn't happen that a language which represents people with lesser power ends up spoken by the people in power."
Maori themselves comprise less than 15 per cent of New Zealand's population – that means the other 85 per cent will effectively be learning a second language which isn't their cultural tongue, a big majority who needs to buy in to the idea.
Incorporating a minority language as a compulsory key component into a nationwide curriculum has almost no precedents around the world. Perhaps the closest is when Latin was compulsory in schools in parts of the English-speaking world, but even then, English is descended from Latin.
The Greens are trying to fix a problem. The Maori language is gradually declining, with only 20 per cent of Maori now speaking their language compared to 25 per cent just 15 years ago.
The Greens have picked a solution that has had some success.
Welsh is the shining beacon of language revival. In 1981 only 500,000 Welsh could speak their own language. The government introduced compulsory Welsh in schools up to the age of 16 in 2000. Today, over 700,000 Welsh can speak their language, but some attribute that to the effort of Welsh nationalists before 2000.
Welsh's distant cousin Irish is often cited as an example too. After a long period of decline, Irish was made compulsory in schools and even made a prerequisite for government jobs. The programme has had limited success – it may have kept the language alive, because over 40 per cent of Irish claim to be able to speak it. But only 2 per cent of Irish use the language on a day-to-day basis.
The main problem with these success stories is that Irish and Welsh people are a majority in their own countries.
National opposes the idea on principle. Education Minister Hekia Parata told a student magazine last year that while she supported the language, compulsion in itself is a negative concept: "Of all the drivers for successful language acquisition, motivation is essential. Compulsion is the antithesis of motivation."
That very much fits into National's philosophy. But it begs the question as to why any school subjects, let alone Te Reo, would be compulsory. Why is learning the difference between an equilateral and isosceles triangle more useful than learning some key phrases in Te Reo?
A counter-argument to that would be that Maori isn't 'useful' – even less useful than knowing what an isosceles triangle is. Less than 1 out of 25 New Zealanders speak it, something like 160,000 New Zealanders. It pales in comparison to the number of speakers of other languages. Even Luxembourgish, the language of the tiny European country of Luxembourg, has 390,000 speakers.
Moreover, Maori is only a requirement for a handful of jobs and has almost no use outside of New Zealand.
These negatives are off-set by the invaluable cultural advantage of preserving Maori. UNESCO classifies Maori as a 'vulnerable' language, which is one step short of 'safe'. Maori could descend into the 'definitely endangered' if the proportion of young Maori speakers declines further, which is already happening.
There's also a practical advantage. Learning another language, as the Greens correctly identified when they announced the policy, has plenty of scientifically proven positive side-effects. These include but aren't limited to increased cognitive ability in areas such as memory and decision-making, as well as understanding a whole new way of looking at the world. It's hard to quantify the benefits to Maori-Pakeha relations that compulsory education would bring, but they no doubt exist.
The idea that compulsion is necessarily a bad thing is also debatable.
When it comes to Parata's idea that motivation and compulsion are two separate ideas and never the twain shall meet, Cunningham says there are different kinds of motivation. Compulsion can be a successful motivator.
"In Ireland you can't get a government service job without a level of Irish language. Instrumental motivation means you need to do something that enables you to do something else."
And when it comes to compulsion, Malaysia has successfully ensured the nationwide adoption of Bahasa Malaysia.
Only 50 per cent of the population of Malaysia is Malay. The country has very large ethnic minority populations – almost a quarter of the population, for example, is ethnic Chinese. At one point knowing the language was a requirement for citizenship – even children born in Malaysia weren't eligible for citizenship until they demonstrated competency in the language. This requirement has since been removed, but its reintroduction has very recently been raised in the Malaysian media.
But the authoritarian "Malaysian method" is probably not digestible for much of the New Zealand public.
Cunningham points out there are "carrot" options to balance the "stick" of compulsory Te Reo. Iceland offers instant citizenship to foreigners who master Icelandic. Elfdalian, a tiny language in central Sweden, was on the brink of language death until a non-profit organisation stepped in and offered schoolchildren the equivalent of NZ$930 if they could prove they can speak Elfdalian.
And when it comes to dollars and cents, compulsory Te Reo needn't be expensive. On paper, there would be no increase in class hours, and therefore staff costs. Additionally, and more importantly, there may not be a need for extra staff.
One practical issue brought up by Hekia Parata and others is that the lack of Te Reo teachers is holding the language back. But Cunningham says this problem, and the problem of finding extra qualified people, is gradually solving itself.
"All the primary and secondary school teachers at the University of Canterbury are actually learning Te Reo. Efforts are really being made here."
Additionally, Te Reo wouldn't necessarily push out other subjects in the primary school curriculum. For years 1-10 there are seven core subjects: English, the arts, health and physical education, mathematics and statistics, science, the social sciences, and technology.
Say you add one more, Te Reo, to the list. If a child has 22 hours of lessons a week, that's three hours and six minutes per subject per week. An extra core subject would mean 2 hours and 45 minutes per subject. A sacrifice of 21 minutes per subject per week.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle the Greens face is the immense difficulty of 'artificially' promoting a language. As Cunningham puts it, Maori have to want to speak Maori in order for the language to survive.
"You can't save a language on behalf of another people."
So if the Greens truly want to achieve their objective, they'll have to incorporate into their equation that most fundamental of linguistic truths – that language is organic.