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 that 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 “[we] 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, 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 between 2000 and 2010, 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 compulsory in Wales for students from the age of five to 14, and in 1999 this compulsion was extended to students up to the age of 16. 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 in both the absolute number of Welsh speakers and their proportion in the population of Wales as a whole – a trend that is expected to continue.

A similar pattern of compulsory indigenous second-language teaching in schools failing to revive those languages has 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.

Opening doors for young people to learn a second language

Schools across the country will begin opening their doors to students in the coming days of the new school year. Opposition Spokesperson for Education Nikki Kaye explains what makes this year different and why this difference emphasises the need for every student to learn a second language.

Every year around 10,000 or more five-year-olds start school for the first time. What is different this year, however, compared with 10 or 20 years ago, is the ethnic and cultural make-up of this cohort of new entrants. This year’s cohort will have many Kiwi children whose parents may have been born in different countries like Fiji, Samoa, China, Korea or India – to name just a few.

Every year our new entrant cohort is becoming more diverse. This reflects the cultural melting pot that New Zealand has become, particularly in Auckland and other urban areas.

It is important that what children are being taught in schools reflects and responds to changes in society in New Zealand and around the world.

I intend to lodge a Private Members’ Bill to make sure that every child at primary and intermediate schools in New Zealand has the opportunity to learn another language.

Speaking more than one language has enormous cognitive, cultural, social and economic benefits. Strengthening language fluency has the potential to lead to a smarter, more culturally aware nation that is better equipped to succeed domestically and internationally.

While there have been some positive steps to improve language fluency in New Zealand over the last decade, such as the development of the language strand of the curriculum, there is still more to do.

My Members’ Bill will require the Education Minister to set at least 10 priority languages for schools following public consultation, and will place a requirement on the Crown to resource the provision of these languages for schools.

I would expect that languages that would be consulted on would include Mandarin, French, Spanish, Korean, Pacific languages, and potentially Hindi. The Bill makes it clear that Te Reo and New Zealand Sign Language must be national priority languages. The current law requires schools to take reasonable steps to enable children to learn Te Reo and this will not change.

It will be up to school boards to consult with their communities to determine which of the priority languages will be taught at their school. For instance, a school with a large population of Chinese students might decide to teach Mandarin.

Every school will be required to teach at least one second language, but some schools may choose to offer more than one.

I do not underestimate the need to carefully plan and support the workforce to help deliver this policy. My Bill also requires the Government to develop a national language policy, to ensure there is a long-term strategy around issues such as training and development for teachers and access to physical and online resources.

We estimate this policy will cost approximately $160 million over four years. To put this into context, this is about six per cent of the cost of the Government’s fees-free policy.

As an Opposition MP, I am focused on scrutinising Government policy and providing constructive criticism where needed, but also on offering opportunities for cross-party collaboration on key issues like this Bill.

I have written to each party in Parliament asking for their support for the Bill, and I am optimistic that they will have an open mind and be willing to work with me to strengthen language learning in schools.

National campaigned on this policy because it’s something we really believe in, and that’s why I’ve taken it on as my Members’ Bill.

If you believe in this policy as much as I do, head to languages4schools.nz to show your support and offer your feedback on the draft Bill.



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