Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Maori language

It is Maori Language Week in New Zealand, when the government promotes the speaking of the Maori language. This year it has become a rallying point for those who want to force every child in New Zealand, regardless of ethnic origin, to learn Maori.

Maori is not a particularly unique or even standardised language. It is very similar to other languages spoken in Eastern Polynesia from whence it came, including Cook Islands Maori and Tahitian, and there were significant variations in the language within New Zealand. Successive New Zealand governments have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars promoting the language, including establishing Kohunga Reo ('total immersion' Maori language preschools), Kura Kaupapa Māori (primary and secondary Maori immersion schools), a dedicated Maori language television channel and public advertising campaigns. Despite all this money and effort, Maori language use is declining with only 3.7% of the New Zealand population, and only 21 per cent of the (self-identified) Maori population, having a conversational knowledge of the language.

Maori themselves appear uninterested in maintaining their own language and young Maori in particular seem far more enamoured with modern African-American culture, such as hip hop music, than their own. There is a revival of interest in Maori but anecdotal evidence suggests this is mostly confined to the non-Maori urban elite, particularly those who work in government (which insists on Maori greetings and prayers at every meeting or event, no matter how minor).

I object to the call for the Maori language to be made compulsory in schools for two reasons. The first is that it is wrong to force children to learn something that is not of much value to them. Don't get me wrong, I think it is valuable for New Zealand children to learn languages other than English. I studied Latin, French and Spanish and have found all three invaluable - Latin in particular because it is the key to understanding so many other languages and much scientific terminology, and the others because I have travelled to many countries where they are used. I have never needed Maori and have no regrets in not learning it.

The second reason is that making Maori compulsory will limit our children's choices of other subjects. Any parent who has assisted their child in making elective subject choices knows how difficult it is to find a combination of subjects that the child wants and needs to study, and that fit in with the inevitable scheduling conflicts at any school. Compulsory Maori will mean fewer subject choices, or less time spent on other important subjects. As the opposition ACT Party points out here, New Zealand is not exactly an international leader in our educational standards, with Year 5 students ranked 33rd out of 50 countries (and last out of English-speaking countries) in reading literacy and only 49 per cent of our Year 11 students achieving the international reading benchmark. Anything that further disadvantages our children in international comparisons should be opposed.

The promoters of Maori language aren't interested, of course, in making our children internationally competitive - they are driven by their ideology. Maori language is a means to an end and that end is the promotion of group identity above all else. Maintaining the language is an important part of maintaining the pretence that there is an exclusive group of New Zealanders who are victims of the 'white, colonial oppression', and the teaching of Maori in schools provides a platform for the indoctrination of children in this philosophy.

I don't want to see Maori language and culture die or be assimilated into European culture, any more than I want to see that happen to the vibrant native cultures of Mexico that I experienced recently in that country. But forcing New Zealand children to learn a language that is of little use to them is not the answer. Language and culture tend to defy our efforts to control them and, like genes, they evolve to meet the needs of the environment in which they exist. New Zealand's future lies in being a diverse, outward-looking, dynamic society and our education must reflect this. Maori language has a place, but it must be a place that is freely chosen by New Zealanders, not forced upon them.

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