Professor May is a Professor of Education in Te Puna Wānanga (School of Māori and Indigenous Education) at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. He says that his own upbringing in a monolingual environment inspired him to devote his career to the study of bilingualism, and to become fluent in te reo Māori – although he says that as he came late to learning another language, he’s still not as comfortable speaking te reo as he is understanding it. This is a common phenomenon among those who learn another language in adulthood, says Professor May.
Professor May taught English as a second language in Bangladesh, later taking a teaching position at a multiethnic working-class high school in Wellington, Hutt Valley Memorial College. There, under the mentorship of Head of Māori studies John Manuel (Ngāti Porou), he began learning the Māori language.
“Learning a new language as an adult is often a challenge and that was the case here as well. So, even years later, my receptive understanding of te reo Māori is much better than my speaking ability. That is also often a consequence of growing up in a monolingual environment.”
Professor May says one of the key disadvantages of monolingualism is that it’s not the norm internationally.
“Most of the world (75-80 percent) grow up bilingual or multilingual as a matter of course and so those who can only speak one language (even if it is English) are immediately at a disadvantage compared with others who are able to use a number of languages in different contexts, with different people, and for different purposes.”
“It’s time we caught up with the rest of the world. We need to reap the benefits of bilingualism and so it makes sense, as a first port of call, that we do so by first learning te reo Māori – after all, it’s our language, spoken in this place, and part of who we are as New Zealanders, something that Māori language week is highlighting right now!”
Professor May says he also wants more parents to consider a bilingual education for their children, rather than making bad decisions based on mis-information.
Parents have lots to think about when they send their children to school, but increasingly more are taking bilingualism into account.
“All parents want to make the best decisions for their children but one of the key issues with respect to Māori-medium education is a lack of information – and at times, just a lot of misinformation – about what it means to have your children in a bilingual or immersion program.
“Bilingual and immersion programs, like Māori-medium education, are highly effective but there’s a lot of scaremongering out there about them, and some widely held and very entrenched negative attitudes about bilingualism and bilingual education.”
Professor May will talk at the University of Auckland’s International Speaker Series, Whangarei Central Library at 6pm on Wednesday 20th September.