OPINION: The Maori language is a unique New Zealand treasure. Learning the language opens a window on the broader Maori culture, to the benefit of Maori and Pakeha alike.
Te reo is more relevant in 21st century New Zealand than, for example, the traditional French language that previous generations of New Zealanders have learned. While Asian languages are in the ascendance, the value of learning them is largely to do with trade and the wider world. But language is more than about money. It is about identity, and as New Zealanders we need to embrace something that is already here.
If the two primary cultures of this country are to continue to go forward together in partnership, it cannot be done in a monocultural or monolingual environment. There is no real partnership if one side insists that it should only be conducted in the English language.
Te reo has been an official language of New Zealand since the passing of the Maori Language Act in 1987. In the quarter-century since, the language has undergone a renaissance, but mainly through the dedication of a minority of devoted speakers, and learners. We have not even got to the stage of other bilingual territories such as Canada and Wales, where bilingual road signs are displayed.
This week is Maori Language Week and, as every year, it carries a theme. Last year we were encouraged to pronounce place names correctly; this year we are encouraged to broaden our vocabulary through a "word of the week". The effect of this will probably be to make more Maori words and phrases commonplace in New Zealand English, as words such as "whanau", the delightful "puku", and "te reo" have become. That is all well and good, but it is a long way short of bringing Maori language into the everyday mainstream.
One way to promote te reo is to make it compulsory in primary schools. It would be wonderful if all New Zealand children left school able to hold a conversation in more than one of their country's official languages.
The idea has been suggested from time to time, and has sometimes proved controversial. It should not be. While older generations may have little interest in learning te reo, there is much to be gained and nothing to be lost from the lives of children who are schooled in it. And it might also do great things for the health of their brains. Science suggests that learning another language is good for you.
One study from Canada - a country with a bilingual French and English culture - was reported in the Journal of Neurology in 2010 and showed that patients with Alzheimer's disease who spoke two languages reported the onset of symptoms 5 years later, on average, than monolingual patients.
Auckland University professor Richard Faull, who has spent more than 35 years studying the brain, says any form of brain stimulation and of expanding the mind can have a beneficial effect on slowing down brain diseases, and language learning falls into that category.
If New Zealanders embraced the idea of learning another language, Alzheimer's rates might be reduced. And if they are going to learn another language, the language of choice should be te reo Maori.
- The Press