Monday saw Wellington’s Lambton Quay come alive with a joyful parade celebrating Māori Language Week.

Yet, when asked whether her government would make te Reo compulsory in schools Prime Minister Ardern dodged the question, explaining instead that even if the government wanted to do this, New Zealand lacks the necessary teaching workforce.

Her argument makes sense, at least in the short-term. But there are other, more long-term reasons why compulsion might not be right.

Take the experience of Wales, where I grew up, as an example. There, compulsory Welsh was phased in for all children aged 5–14 from 1990. This compulsion widened to age 16 in 1999, and age 3 in 2011.

As a result, most adults in Wales aged 34 and younger have learned Welsh for up to 11 years. However, it is not clear from census statistics that compulsion is working.

In each census year 1991, 2001 and 2011, the same proportion, just 15%, of 20- to 44-year-olds reported being able to speak Welsh. This was even though by 2001 some, and by 2011 significantly more, of this age bracket had experienced compulsory Welsh.

Part of the explanation seems to be that despite learning Welsh from age 5, too few students develop confidence,and amongst those who do, skills drop dramatically over time. In 2011, despite 5+ years of study only 42% of 10- to 14-year-olds reported being able to speak Welsh, and amongst those ten years older the proportion fell to just one in five.

As the then Welsh Education Minister acknowledged, despite their years of compulsory study, too few school leavers feel confident and able to use the language beyond school.

Various reasons will explain why, but one stems directly from Welsh’s compulsory status. Overnight, it turned a language people fought for into an obligation. While a voluntary approach can harness parental support, compulsion can undermine it.

Interestingly, without any compulsion, the number of students enrolled in Māori language courses in New Zealand tertiary institutions increased by 34% between 2009 and 2018, and 86% of these students are over 25.

Balancing compulsion and flexibility is a perpetual challenge. At the Initiative, we believe our national curriculum is too flexible. However, Monday’s joyous parade, evidence from Wales, and the healthy figures on voluntary uptake of te Reo all point to letting Māori language grow organically.

That can happen only when the politicians stay out and continue letting parents and school boards decide.


  1. I think Briar is making the mistake of assuming that a problem/solution in one country will work the same way in a different country – a common colonial mistake. NZ/Aotearoa has a very different history from Wales, with only ~750 years of human settlement, only 240 years of colonial involvement, and two very different cultures – these differences matter.

    Compulsion has worked for language in NZ – Te Reo Maaori was literally beaten out of students in schools, and almost drove the language out of existence. One of the issues in Wales was the number of new residents who didn’t want to learn the language – and I can understand Briar not wanting to do the same. However, one only has to hop across to Belgium or a bunch of other EU/Asian countries to witness compulsory learning of multiple languages working and succeeding.

    It’s clear that Briar and the Initiative has a fixed mindset around this, and lacks flexibility to look at multiple viewpoints or handle complexity. Perhaps they need to learn a new language.

  2. Thank you Geoff for your thoughtful response. I am sorry your mind translates the evidence I present into the assumption I have a fixed mindset. As I say “Balancing compulsion and flexibility is a perpetual challenge”. This article simply present some evidence which I believe is relevant to NZ’s debate.
    Like you I recognise that edu-tourism can lead to mistakes. However, equally it would be a mistake not to consider evidence from other countries.
    The fact NZ and Wales’ histories differ is obvious. There are also some similarities. I fail to see the relevance of your point here.
    Yes compulsion worked in NZ in the past, but unless you propose a return to “literally beating” children (which I doubt), again I fail to see the relevance of your point.
    Re EU and Asian countries, I assume you’re referring to their students’ success in learning in English as a second language. Like it or not, English is the international language. Hence I fail to see the parallel here.
    I look forward to your response.


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