The National Party indicated at its opening campaign rally on Sunday that it knows it will not win this election simply on a sound economy. It needs to indicate what it wants to do if it is given another term. The proposal it announced on Sunday to teach a second language in primary schools is a good start. English-speaking countries are linguistically lazy; they think they can afford to be since so many other countries speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language.
But of the six countries that make up the “anglosphere”, four are probably more proficient at a second language than us. Canada has a strong French element, Britain and Ireland also have a familiarity with French and other languages within the European Union. Spanish has infiltrated parts of the United States. Australia and New Zealand are at risk of being left on a distant monolingual limb.
Yet our society is no less diverse than those of Britain and North America. Thanks to migration in the modern world, all developed countries are sharing more cultures. It is entirely fitting that among the languages National proposes to make available in primary schools are Mandarin and Korean. The numbers of Chinese and Korean children in our schools now deserve to have the native language preserved, for the sake of their cultural heritage and for the benefits that maintaining their proficiency can bring to New Zealand when they finish their education and go into the business world.
French, Spanish and Japanese are among the more usual foreign languages taught in our secondary schools. To make them available to primary schools would be strange. Unless an indigenous or large immigrant community exists to keep a language alive, there seems little point in nurturing it from primary school. Secondary school language studies serve literary and academic purposes rather than producing proficient speakers.
Primary school is certainly where we should be teaching Maori language.
Indeed, it might be wondered whether this is not the primary purpose of the policy outlined by Bill English on Sunday. He will be wary of the backlash that comes from conservative corners of the country at any suggestion te reo be a “compulsory” part of the curriculum, so Maori is to be just one of the 10 languages primary schools can choose, as will be New Zealand’s third official language, sign.
It is profoundly to be hoped all of them would choose Maori. All languages are valuable for the cultural insights they provide and for subtle meanings that do not always have equivalents in other languages. But an indigenous language is a badge of national identity, as non-Maori New Zealanders realise when they are in need of something distinctive overseas.
National has come up with a policy Labour surely will not oppose, and might improve. Many questions remain, such as can enough language teachers be found? But the proposal is positive and should be pursued, relentlessly.
Source: NZ Herald