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Greg Newbold: English Literacy Essential

The following is an unpublished letter written by Greg Newbold to the Bay of Plenty Times.

In his article, 'Literacy in NZ Does Not Stop at English' (BOP Times 24 August), John MacDonald looks forward to a time when all schools will teach Maori language as a core subject alongside English. He envisages a future where competence in te reo will be essential at all levels in the public sector and even in private areas such as law, medicine and engineering. And he applauds it.

As someone who has just finished a 32-year lecturing career at Canterbury University, I can see some major problems with this proposal.

  1. Teaching 64,000 teachers how to speak Maori properly, and then providing the resources (language labs, etc) for them to instruct 750,000 children to speak the language would be immensely time consuming and expensive. I spent two years studying Maori at university level and there is no way that I would consider myself a competent Maori speaker. Proficiency in any language takes years of study and constant immersion in the culture it pertains to. Dilettantism leads to corruption of the language.

  2. If all teachers were forced to become fully competent in Maori, and then to impart that skill in the classroom, it would have to take place at the expense of other subjects. The recent drop in numeracy and English literacy standards of school leavers in New Zealand has been well publicised. A recent study found that 40 percent of students who get NCEA level 2 are not functionally literate (or numerate). This was a problem I faced constantly at the University of Canterbury, where even 2nd and 3rd year students did not understand the basics of English grammar and could not even put proper sentences together. Diverting time away from learning essential English literacy skills will only confound this problem. It is better for students to be able to speak and write at least one language well, than two languages badly.

  3. New Zealand is not a bi-cultural nation, it is multi-cultural. There are six major ethnic groups in New Zealand and 18 major languages are spoken. Most speakers of non-English languages in this country are already bi-lingual. If they wish their children also to be enriched by bilingualism, they should be free to select a second language of their choice. Often it will be the language of the culture they belong to, not the of the culture of somebody else.

  4. New Zealand is a small nation tucked away at the Southern extremity of the Pacific Ocean. As such we are increasingly dependent on international contacts in trade, politics and popular culture. In terms of career advantages, competency in the languages of our major trading partners and political allies is therefore essential. In order of importance these languages are English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian. Competency in Maori provides no career advantages on the global stage.

  5. New Zealand's skills shortages in areas like health, teaching, engineering and so on are well known. Requiring knowledge of te reo as an essential prerequisite to these areas of employment would inevitably stifle the influx of essential workers to this country and worsen our skills deficits. Alternatively if, in the future, knowledge of te reo could automatically push a candidate to the front of a job queue, as John MacDonald suggests should happen, highly qualified engineers, medical specialists, economists and managers would be shunted aside by people whose only real qualification was proficiency in Maori. The result would be institutionalised dumbing-down and systemic incompetency at high levels. This would be a disaster for our country.

New Zealand's education system is certainly in a state of crisis and we face chronic shortages in essential skills areas, but mandating the teaching of Maori in schools will do nothing to solve the problem.

Greg Newbold, Professor Emeritus, University of Canterbury, is the author of several books covering criminal justice, criminology and social history.

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