Language revitalisation a global issue for indigenous people

Kenji Sekine was the keynote speaker at the Poukorero conference at Puke Ariki on Wednesday night.
CHARLOTTE CURD/Fairfax NZ

Kenji Sekine was the keynote speaker at the Poukorero conference at Puke Ariki on Wednesday night.

The story of a language almost lost by the indigenous people of Japan is eerily similar to the one experienced by New Zealand's tangata whenua.

But Kenji Sekine​, of the Ainu people of Japan, said the way Maori had reclaimed their reo provided him with inspiration in his efforts to achieve the same result in his homeland.

Sekine was the keynote speaker at this year's Poukorero conference in New Plymouth on Wednesday night, where he outlined how a campaign of forced assimilation by the Japanese government in the 19th century almost wiped out the Ainu culture and language. 

Laws prohibiting traditional fishing practices enacted in the 1860s and a general denigration of Ainu people, who were labelled "savages"  meant generations of Japan's indigenous population saw little value in their own culture. The Ainu population is about 25,000, which is only 0.02 per cent of the entire Japanese population.

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"Because of that discrimination, there are still Ainu families who don't want to hear a word of Ainu," he said through translator Takayuki Okazaki.

In 2010, the Ainu language was classified by the United Nations as a critically endangered language. Maori was deemed vulnerable in the same study.

The use of te reo Maori was severely disrupted following the arrival of the European settlers and the impact colonisation had on tangata whenua. But in the 1980s a series of revitalisation projects were launched in Aotearoa, which coincided with Maori becoming an official language of the country in 1987. Census data shows that in 2013, about 21 per cent of Maori could hold an everyday conversation in te reo.

Sekine said he and a group of Ainu people visited Parihaka in 2013 and a partnership has since developed with language scholars Dr Ruakere Hond and Erana Brewerton.

Since then, Sekine said he had started to use the Te Ataarangi method of language acquisition, where coloured Cuisenaire rods or rakau are used as a learning tool. 

He said while most of his weekly classes were one hour long, he had introduced a total immersion style of learning to his students, where the Ainu language is spoken over the course of an entire weekend, similar to wananga sessions Maori language students have on marae.

Sekine said he wanted to develop a picture dictionary for the Ainu language and also expand the vocabulary in order to enhance its relevance to daily life.

He said he was grateful for the support and guidance provided to him by people like Hond and Brewerton, along with Te Ururoa Flavell, who was behind the initial invitation for the group to visit  Parihaka.

"I guess if we can develop more speakers (of Ainu) then that's the way we can pay back the generosity of the Maori people," he said.

​The Poukorero conference, which is focused on developing better ways to keep indigenous language alive, runs until Friday with a series of workshops and speeches to be delivered at Parihaka.

  

 - Stuff

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