I’m told that there is evidence that learning a second language has some benefits in terms of brain development, especially for young children, and I understand that this was the rationale in the last National Government’s decision to encourage schools to teach a second language. That Government suggested it would provide funding for the teaching of any one of 10 languages, the choice of which language to be taught being left to individual schools.
Apparently fearing that too few schools would choose te reo Maori as their preferred second language, the incoming Labour-New Zealand First Government scrapped that plan and has driven an active campaign to have schools teach te reo Maori. I’m told that all school teachers are now under huge pressure to learn the Maori language themselves, and to teach it at every opportunity. I have heard anecdotal evidence that new teachers are not permitted to get their teaching certificate until they can show some proficiency in the language.
And this is clearly being driven by the Labour Government. At every opportunity the Government refers to our country as Aotearoa, or perhaps Aotearoa New Zealand, despite having absolutely no mandate to do that, and despite polling showing that the great majority of New Zealanders do not want the country’s name changed.
The government itself is identified as “Te Kawanatanga o Aotearoa” in bold lettering, with the words “New Zealand government” in a smaller and lighter typeface below. Many government departments now have only a Maori name – think Oranga Tamariki and Kainga Ora. Even those which still have a name in the English language have a Maori name as well, with the Maori name more and more widely used – think Waka Kotahi.
State-owned broadcasters TVNZ and Radio New Zealand insist on using Maori names for our major cities, even though in no meaningful sense were our major cities Maori creations.
When I was at the Reserve Bank, there was a suggestion that the Bank should have a Maori name, a suggestion which I resisted. To me, “Reserve Bank” was and is a proper noun, like John Key, and just as nobody suggests that John Key should have a Maori name, nobody should suggest that the Reserve Bank should have a Maori name. The whole idea of a central bank was not known in New Zealand prior to the 1930s, and was certainly not an idea known to early Maori society. Nevertheless, even the Reserve Bank now has a Maori name, though nobody I have met knows how it was chosen or what its Maori name actually means.
Of course, it really doesn’t matter at all whether I like the rapidly increasing trend to give prominence to Maori words. What is seriously tragic, however, is that at a time when far too many of our children are coming out of school barely able to read and write in English they are having to devote precious school time to learning a language which, for the overwhelming majority, will have absolutely no value at all.
Not for nothing did many 19th century Maori parents demand that schools teach their children in English, some going as far as demanding that kids be punished for speaking te reo. They recognised that the English language was the door to progress and modernity, and they wanted that for their children.
And if that was true in the 19th century it is even more true in the 21st century. English is not just the primary language of New Zealand, it is the most widely used language in the entire world. Yes, more people speak Mandarin Chinese as their first language than speak English as their first language. The same may be true of those who speak Spanish. But more people in total speak English than any other language because for huge numbers of people English is either their first language or their second.
English is the absolutely essential language if you want to be a pilot, no matter where you fly. English is essential if you want a career in international finance, medicine or science. It is the essential language if you want to get a decent job in New Zealand – or indeed, to get any job in New Zealand unless you want to make a profession of teaching the Maori language to the next generation. Being fluent in reading and writing English will take you almost anywhere; being fluent in te reo Maori may get you approving words from your Maori grandparent, or from the woke lecturer in some university sociology course.
But unless you are also fluent in English, it won’t get you much else. For most people, devoting hours to learning the Maori language is a luxury which they simply can’t afford.
A few days ago, Te Ao Maori News reported that Ara – what used to be known as the Christchurch Polytech – has decided to teach automotive engineering in te reo Maori. Why? Because a single student (who had been educated in a Maori language school) had decided that he wanted to set up a business repairing cars where te reo Maori would be the primary language for both staff and customers. The Ara tutor admitted that there were some problems in teaching automotive engineering in the Maori language because, unsurprisingly, the Maori language simply doesn’t have words for most of the technical words needed for such tuition. After all, when Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, Maori were not even using the wheel. But instead of telling the student to get real, that he is never going to build a business repairing cars if his only customers are Maori speakers, at time of writing it appears that taxpayer-funded Ara intends to indulge this nonsense.
Tragically for New Zealand and for the people most directly involved, far too many teenagers come out of our taxpayer-funded schools barely literate in English. Spending time and taxpayer money trying to teach them a language which has no practical value to them at all is an extravagance which we and they can ill afford.