Maori language 'needs saving'

A leading language revival expert says forcing non-Maori to learn the language will only strain race relations further.

Professor Ghil'ad Zuckermann spoke at the University of Waikato earlier this week, and the Israeli languages expert said the easiest way to tell if a language is in trouble is to look to the children.

"Just look at the percentage of Maori children who can speak Maori, it's extremely low. "We need to aim to have 100 per cent of Maori children speaking it natively," he said.

"Loss of language is far more severe than loss of land. It's a loss of culture, of intellectual sovereignty, autonomy, self identity. If you lose the land, at least it's still there. You can look at the mountain and you can look at the lake, but when language is lost, there's nowhere to look. That's it."

Forcing non-Maori to learn the language, as has been suggested for some schools, was not the answer and would only raise hackles.

"It's an internal affair, it's not a white people's problem.

"But I definitely do encourage access to those who want it.

"We have to allow Maori to decide on their own what they want for their children. It's not a totalitarian regime," he said.

More emphasis on Maori debates, speech competitions, and even summer schools, could well be the way forward.

He said it's all about attracting young people and offering more incentives.

"New Zealand has a chance to save the Maori language, but it will be extremely difficult. The hardest part will be in getting the parents to learn it and speak it, so the children can pick it up natively. The mother tongue should feel so automatic that we don't even have to think before we speak."

He said the Government should support the revival of Te Reo Maori wholeheartedly, without any "bean counting", interference, or asking what they get in return.

"It's like parenting in a way. We can't just tell the other one to shut up and do it my way, you've got to co-parent. The community is more important than me."