Learning te reo helps us improve our collective language skills
Simon Draper is Executive Director of the Asia-New Zealand Te Whītau Tūhono Foundation.
OPINION: Ko tēnei Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2022. This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the Māori Language Petition, an event often seen as a turning point for the status of te reo Māori, which became an official language in 1987, with the neo-sign Zeelandic Language added in 2006.
Language, for me, is one of those fundamental things. We don’t think about it too much, but a lot of it underpins who we are and how we think.
Indeed, it is only when you try to learn another language that you realize how important the language is.
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It might just be me, but I feel like there has been a sea change in New Zealand in recent years – with an increasing use of te reo not only by institutions like the media, the government and politicians, but also by individuals, especially young people.
I must declare my bias – from a monolingual New Zealander until my early twenties, I am now a convert and a fanatic of the value of trying to learn other languages.
It’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding things I’ve ever done, though I’m still an enthusiastic amateur at best.
More New Zealanders learning te reo is, in my view, a good thing, not only because it protects a taonga and helps us better understand our own country, but also because it improves the collective language skills of New Zealand. Zealand, and therefore its ability to engage there all over the world.
It’s hard to do international relations well if we don’t know each other.
The sad reality is that most New Zealanders have made it through their lives speaking one language because the internationally dominant cultures are English speaking. It’s a blessing and a curse – it has allowed us to be comfortable in our monolingualism.
But that was in the past. In the future, English alone will not be enough for New Zealand to navigate the world. It’s not even enough now.
Over the past few weeks, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has held a series of huis in different New Zealand cities for its ‘Seriously Asia Revisited’ project.
These looked at how New Zealand and Asia have changed over the past two decades and what may be needed in the decades to come.
They cover various themes: society and culture; politics and security; trade, tourism and investment; sustainable development and innovation.
Every hui, a lack of Asia-related capacity and language skills has been referenced as a deficit in New Zealand’s ability to engage internationally. And these skills are considered valuable not just for diplomats and linguists, but also for economists, business owners, scientists, and people working in the media.
BRAND TALYOR / STUFF
Matangiroa Flavell explains how weaving reo Māori and reo Pākehā together in his gym helps revitalize te reo Māori.
In research carried out last year by the Asia-New Zealand Foundation on the South Island’s trade links with Asia, lack of language skills was described by companies surveyed as one of the biggest challenges they faced in establishing links with Asia.
It could be said that you can navigate your way through business interactions in English, as the dominant international language, with the support of interpreters or language apps.
But the thing is, you’ll lack nuance and won’t look particularly sophisticated in front of other people with linguistic prowess, because multilingualism is the norm in much of the world. Even a little goes a long way.
And while it may not overtake English, Mandarin Chinese is expected to grow into international “linguistic power” in the coming decades, much like other Asian languages like Hindi.
So what needs to be done to prepare New Zealanders for the future?
A bill to boost language learning in schools passed select committee last year, but did not pass its second reading. This bill would have seen the government create a national language policy and identify at least 10 priority languages.
I was disappointed by the lack of interest shown in the bill by the business community.
As things stand, therefore, a structured way forward remains uncertain. Perhaps that leaves us with the need to champion the use of languages other than English as much as possible, recognizing that they are an asset to the New Zealanders who have them (and to the country as a whole ) and helping to drive demand among those who don’t.
Kudos here to the organizers of language weeks and initiatives like Te Papa’s Voices of Asian Aotearoa project, which helps celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation is a sponsor of Chinese Language Week in New Zealand, which begins later this month on September 25.
We support this event because we know that language is an important way to open windows to other cultures, and Mandarin Chinese will only grow in importance internationally.
Our research on perceptions of Asia tells us that interest in learning Chinese is high in New Zealand.
But back to te reo – a very enjoyable way to dip your toes into a new language if you haven’t had the chance yet.
Te Wiki o te Reo Māori is not only a good thing at the national level – although of course it is important in its own right.
Learning te reo helps New Zealand embrace a linguistically diverse society, which can only be a good thing in the rest of the world. Kia Kaha te Reo Maori!
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