Migrant report stuns linguists

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 11/08/2014
Gloriana Roebeck
PETER MEECHAM/ Fairfax NZ

BILINGUAL: Gloriana Roebeck felt her Samoan language fade soon after arriving in New Zealand.

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Language experts are "in shock" at a government report suggesting migrants should learn English at the expense of their mother tongue to better integrate into New Zealand.

The report on language and integration by the Department of Internal Affairs says employment rates and earning capacity of migrants correlate with their English language ability.

It also says despite mother language maintenance having positive integration outcomes for migrants, there is a negative correlation between conditions that promote acquiring English language and maintaining their native language.

Linguists believe the advice gives migrants a dangerous choice between learning English and a better chance at integrating or gaining benefits from maintaining their native language.

"That is what is being presented in this report; it's a zero sum game. If you want to have good English, you really ought to stop speaking your home language," Victoria University linguistics professor Miriam Meyerhoff said.

Despite being bilingual, when Gloriana Roebeck arrived from Samoa in 2011 to study post-production in film and TV, she found her Samoan language start to fade even without the pressures of learning English.

"Sometimes I stumble when speaking Samoan. It was surprising. I didn't realise that this could happen," she said.

The only times she spoke Samoan was at church and when visiting family. Without the recognition or celebration of her language, she found her cultural identity brushed over as Pasifika.

"I grew up with the knowledge that I am Samoan. I have come to see that I am not really seen as Samoan but identified as a Pacific Islander. I struggle with the concept that I am seen as a Pacific Islander because I differentiate from Tongan and Fijian but we are all lumped together," she said.

According to the Government, the report acknowledged difficulties that migrants faced to retain their own language while becoming more proficient in English but it did not call for migrants to learn English at the expense of their native tongue.

"In the end, it is a matter for each person or family to find the right balance while keeping in mind the benefits of English proficiency in New Zealand and the need to retain their heritage language," Ethnic Affairs Minister Judith Collins said.

But linguists believed it put the responsibility solely on migrants to preserve their language.

Instead, they said New Zealand needed to encourage bilingualism.

"Kids do better if they have both languages maintained. And it's not just academic. It is wellbeing. You have happier people for being who they are and that was always one of the things that New Zealand did," Meyerhoff said.

"It is a strange world that we live in where governments are wanting to do things that encourage language teaching programmes so middle class white kids can learn how to speak Mandarin, but kids who speak Cantonese aren't having their language maintained at all, even though it could be of much more utility to maintain what we already have in resources."

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