In what sort of state is Te Reo in?  If it was a person, its condition would be one of a patient on life-support. Its pulse beats weakly, its other vital signs still appear to indicate that there is (faint) cause for hope, but linguistic atrophy is spreading from the extremities to the core, and the entire body is only being given the semblance of life by a large and cumbersome academic and bureaucratic apparatus, which keeps the essential functions working.

The last great hope being held out by some politicians and policy-makers at present is for the language to be made a compulsory subject in the country’s schools. Compulsion has an instinctive appeal: a bold step in support of a language in a perilous state, and gives the impression that something substantial is being done – metaphorically – to stop the bleeding.

In February 2017, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand announced its support for the compulsory teaching of Te Reo Māori. This policy was accompanied by the assertion that ‘[w]e have a responsibility to ensure that our indigenous language thrives in Aotearoa. Introducing all children to it at school is the best way to make that happen’.

The claim that compulsion is the ‘best way’ to ensure that Te Reo ‘thrives’ in the country reveals an exceptional ignorance of the basic tenets of languages. Such policies are bereft of sufficient analysis or understanding of the challenges facing Te Reo. The call for compulsion also signals that the normal transmission mechanisms of the language have broken down – something that no amount of compulsion can remedy. Policies requiring compulsion are a rather unsophisticated reflex response to an intricate cultural and social challenge, involving a complex web of motives and nuanced sociolinguistic considerations.

But the most compelling reason to avoid compulsion in schools is that it has a consistent record of failure when it comes to reviving indigenous languages.  After the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921, for example, Irish was made compulsory, but this did little to advance the cause of the indigenous language, and eventually did not achieve the hoped-for revitalisation of Irish, which is currently in near-terminal decline.

In Singapore, under the Mother Tongue Language policy, all students are required to study their respective official mother-tongue language. Tamil (one of the country’s four official languages) is a compulsory subject in schools for Tamil students, and is available in most public schools. Yet, despite this compulsion, between 2000 and 2010, the use of the Tamil language as a household language among Singapore’s Tamil population fell from 42.9 per cent to 36.7 per cent, despite increased government funding and new strategies to encourage the language’s revitalisation.

The same trend is evident in Luxembourg, where the indigenous language – Luxembourgish – is now classified as endangered, meaning that it is at risk of becoming extinct in the near future. Despite being a compulsory subject in schools since 1912 (as well as being a requirement for naturalisation from 1938, and being declared a national language in 1983), the language is in decline and faces dying out altogether.

In 1990, Welsh was made a compulsory in Wales for students from the age of five to fourteen, and in 1999, this compulsion was extended to students up to the age of sixteen. However, even with this compulsion, along with a range of other state-sponsored measures to support the language’s revitalisation, the 2011 census revealed there had been a decline both in the absolute number of Welsh speakers, and their proportion in the population of Wales as a whole – a trend that is expected continue.

A similar pattern of compulsory indigenous second-language teaching in schools failing to revive those languages have occurred with Catalan, and collectively, these examples illustrate that compulsion, even when accompanied by the fully armoury of language-revitalisation strategies, and even when undertaken in countries where the indigenous culture is in the majority, fail in their single objective: to prevent the language in question from declining further.

There is another dimension to this failure, however, that is less apparent. The political capital expended in order to get an indigenous language made compulsory in a state school system is enormous.  Once the advocates of such a policy have accomplished their aim, they are much less likely to have sufficient remaining political leverage in the short term to achieve anything else on such a scale. And herein lies the danger: they are left with a system of compulsion that is destined to fail in its goal of revitalising the indigenous language, and with little political currency remaining to advance the cause of the language in other ways. Allied to this problem is the belief that compulsion – despite the clear evidence to the contrary – is a sort of meta-solution to the decline of indigenous languages, which it manifestly is not.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT. His new book, Killing Te Reo Māori: An Indigenous Language Facing Extinction (Campus Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-9941192-6-1) is now available at Unity Books.


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