Thoughts on te reo and the Green Party policy

Dec 19, 2017

Ka hao te Rakatahi
Nā Nuku Tau

The place of te reo was a hot topic this election. With the Green Party promising compulsion, Labour giving a watered-down version of the same thing, and National predictably shoehorning it in with other languages as an optional choice, it’s hard to see what will actually happen with the nation’s Indigenous language in terms of legislation. However, most would agree that some form of action is needed to aid the language. The number of Māori speaking te reo has actually dropped from 25% to 20% in the last 15 years. Everyone’s tāua and pōua has stories of being strapped for speaking their native language at school, or simply being told not to speak it at all. Through the draconian Native Schools Act and William Bird’s 1903 amendment, government legislation was used to destroy a core part of the Māori identity for many years. In my mind, a government-reinforced problem does require a government-reinforced solution.

The Green Party wants to introduce a policy that would make te reo compulsory in schools until year 10. Personally, I dislike the idea of compulsion to do anything. However, the idea of hourly classes weekly that give basic knowledge of te teo and Te Ao Māori is attractive. We all know the importance of te reo to the national and Indigenous identity and the plethora of benefits from learning a second language. But is it realistic, and can it be done?

The immediate problem is one of resources and supply. Currently te reo teachers are thin on the ground, especially in secondary schools. These teachers are often already under huge pressure, having numerous roles in their respective schools – most often the school’s “dial-a-pōwhiri” hotline, link to Te Ao Māori, tikanga reference point, scholarship advisor, kapa haka leader, and Māori pastoral care provider. From a student of one such teacher, I can say that some of these, such as kapa haka teacher, should be stand-alone jobs. Then you can add the usual stresses and responsibilities of being a teacher, such as being a Dean, Head of Department, exams, classes, and parents. Kaiako are already stretched to the limit.

According to One News (2016), one in five students at Shirley Boys’ High School identify as Māori. The school has one te reo teacher. It was a similar case at St Thomas of Canterbury College, where my Māori teacher would often juggle a heap of responsibilities. Of course this may not be the case in all schools, and it is difficult to find hard stats on the subject. However, the principals and staff of many schools agree on the core point that there is already a huge stretch on resources. Adding a huge amount of classes with a ham-fisted “compulsory” policy with no real infrastructure could easily do more harm than good. It will be interesting to see how politicians approach this issue.

There is also the less salient issue of many New Zealanders’ attitude towards the language. People like to mention Wales and Ireland as cases of successful original language rejuvenation. While true, this skirts around the fact that the majority population of Wales and Ireland (being Welsh and Irish) have a vested interest in learning their own language. Even so, ACT Party leader David Seymour points out that compulsion made Gaelic the “Brussel sprout” of language options. It became unpopular, and people resented it. Like it or not, non-Māori New Zealanders have to want to learn the language for any kind of law to be effective. Currently there are all kinds of regressive attitudes around the Māori language. After an editorial on the merits of learning te reo, The Press received a letter saying, “No child of mine will ever speak Māori in my home.” This kind of racism is disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. I believe many Māori students would agree that they are often put on the spot by fellow students demanding that they have all the answers around the merits of learning te reo, when their interrogator already entertains an utterly immovable preconceived notion that it’s useless. The effects of harmful past legislation and widespread ignorance don’t simply disappear with a new law or wave of the legislative wand.

I would love to see this policy implemented with diligence and thought. I believe an ideal situation would be well-taught, perhaps one-hour-weekly classes, that teach not only te reo, but tikanga and marae protocol, as well as New Zealand’s history. I would see this beginning in primary schools, with optional expansion in high school or perhaps at year 11. With Te Ao Māori becoming an ever-increasing facet of government and private institutions, a basic yet well-rounded knowledge of tikanga is beneficial for numerous cultural and financial reasons.

Canterbury Museum academic Roger Duff’s myth that Māori simply couldn’t keep up with civilisation is just one of many harmful, widespread beliefs that one simple history lesson could cure. Māori land was systematically robbed and taken by numerous Acts that were legislated right up until 1953 with the Māori Affairs Act, which deemed any Māori land not in active use as “wasteland”, and eligible for Government confiscation. The Town and Country Planning Act of the same year prevented Māori from building on their land. This caused the disintegration of rural communities, and forced many Māori families to shift to unfamiliar, urban environments, which further attacked traditional ideas of community and whānau unity. There are numerous examples of legislation that show the hand the government and “powers that be” have had in the attack on Māori culture and identity – and particularly on te reo. I believe that if most New Zealanders had an idea of the history of our country, attitudes of ignorance and idiocy would easily be expelled, solving the problems of the poor attitudes aforementioned.

While hopeful and positive, it will be interesting to see how this policy plays out over the next three years, if it does at all. There are numerous obstacles that will require careful thought and examination to be overcome. However, if they can be, and if well done, I believe the Green’s te reo policy could bring a world of positive and needed change to a New Zealand that despite what many may think, is often the target of scrutiny and criticism in its treatment and attitude towards its Indigenous language and identity.

Eighteen-year-old Nuku Tau (Ngāi Tahu, Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri) is a year 13 student at Christ’s College.