Universal Te Reo

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Uncategorized

The Greens had the first policy launch of the year, arguing for universal teaching of Te Reo in Primary schools, intermediates, and to a limited degree in Secondary schools. (that is, as a core curriculum subject for Years 1-10) This is not entirely unprecedented1, and it is a reasonable reaction to the still-declining ability of Māori to actually hold a conversation in their own language. I had meant to talk about this earlier but other events displaced my work on this post, so you can have it on delay instead.

Some would argue that this is a hippy-dippy thing for a party to promote, but I think that’s probably because very few of them have actually sat down and read up on the matter like I did after the policy announcement. (despite being a language nerd and being in favour in principle, I wanted to know the statistics around this and familiarize myself with a few of the broad issues facing educators and students in this space)

The last information2 we have is that Te Reo is only available in less than 50% of New Zealand schools. As an official language with legal recognition in New Zealand, (fun fact: this means Te Reo Māori actually has a higher formal status than English in New Zealand law, as English has no legislative status despite being a de facto official language) Te Reo Māori deserves better. Also included in the policy, but not being talked about, is a push for better access to Māori sign language for the intersection of the deaf and Māori communities, which is incredibly important. As a second-language speaker myself, I can definitely say that my brief experiences with not always being able to accurately explain New Zealand culture were not just frustrating but incredibly alienating, and that’s only a small taste of what children who don’t even have the vocabulary to understand and discuss their own culture because they’ve only ever been taught signs for European cultures must feel.

Because we’re mostly talking about primary and intermediate schools, (plus the first two years of secondary) the usual practice is that all education is considered core education, and the differences come about in optional parts of the curriculum that each school decides to cover, so in practice it would no longer be an option not to learn Te Reo in Years 1-8 once it is available in all schools, however arguably there might be some flexibility for secondary school students depending on how universality is handled there that might make the last two proposed years non-compulsory. I think the benefits grossly outweigh the compulsion required, as with compulsory education in English language.

All this is essentially talking about is teaching basic vocabulary and rote phrases to young kiwis. Advanced language learning where people are actually taught language structure and how to compose their own sentences without rote memorisation is usually left until Year 11 in language education, although given how early the Greens want to start, (as usually languages other than English don’t start until Year 9) it’s possible that advanced grammar could be taught much earlier in terms of what school year it’s introduced in while still going slower than the secondary school pace of second-language education, in which case, great.

This would have the pleasant side-effect of improving education of English as students not failing Te Reo would have some basic understanding of grammar. Te Reo grammar is much less complicated than English grammar, so they’d still both need to be covered either separately or comparatively, but they would likely need to become familiar with concepts of what nouns are, what verbs are, how plurals work, what pronouns are, and how possessives, indefinite articles, and definite articles work, even though a few of those things differ in Te Reo.

And language nerdery aside, it’s shown that education that integrates Māori culture and language is much more effective for Māori students, (as you would expect!) which means it will help provide equality of opportunity in education, and that language revitalization efforts integrating compulsory education into the mix is very effective, and giving it status as a core subject that everyone needs to learn will help remove the element of peer-pressure that is likely contributing to declining ability in Te Reo.

And on the benefits for non-Māori students, the UK has had a lot of benefits migrating to a very similar policy of compulsory second language education3, although there have been challenges in up-skilling the workforce to cope with it that they still haven’t met, which we would likely encounter as well, and would thus need to aggressively plan for. And unlike generic second language education, compulsory Te Reo should lead to much increased racial harmony between other ethnic groups in New Zealand and Māori due to increased ability to understand the Māori perspective and participate meaningfully in Māori culture, which can only be a good thing.

Overall it’s a well-founded bit of policy, and it’s shot across the bow in terms of values: the Greens know it’s not a general vote-grabber to propose policy that benefits Māori, but it’s a debate they want to have and reverse public perception on as part of their planned win. This is much like what Cunliffe managed to do with wealth taxes, despite his loss, (which was due to other reasons) and it’s the right way to campaign in an election year. Despite being in a populist mood, people will always prefer a genuine party with values to an establishment one without, and populism is best aimed at things the people most care about, so let’s hope that Labour has also understood that lesson from both 2014 and 2016.

1 Note that the first link is indeed a former National Party Prime Minister advocating for exactly this sort of policy, so it’s basically something in the ideological range of anyone more socially liberal than the ACTs or Conservative Parties of the world. Even the nationalists over in New Zealand First realise that Te Reo Māori4 is an integral part of kiwi culture and deserves better treatment and resourcing in our education system, despite generally having not met anything British they don’t like, so this is likely to be well-supported if we change the government, despite Labour not yet being entirely on board.

2 That is, the last information translated into English. I don’t read Te Reo well enough to be able to tell if the Māori language commission has updated figures because they, appropriately enough, do not offer their website in English, and only my intermediate education integrated any solid Te Reo into its core curriculum, because most of Te Reo is self-taught due to it being cursory in Primary school and never reinforced after intermediate. Thus I am perhaps good evidence for the need this policy seeks to address.

3 Presumably to better align with Europe, although the UK secondary system sounds incredibly demanding as-is, (my experience of UK education was all in the primary sector) so it could also conceivably have been to move some of that load onto primary and intermediate education.

4 While we’re footnoting, for anyone who is wondering why Māori language is often called Te Reo, it’s a shortening of the disambiguation between Māori as a people and Māori as a language- technically Te Reo just means “the language,” it’s just a matter of context that transforms it into a term for Māori language specifically. Without spoiling anything for complete novices, (yes, I have started learning a little when I find the time) let me say that’s not the only surprise you might find in the phrase.

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