To all te reo Māori haters out there ...

01 December 2017
Stephen May
Professor Stephen May

Me kōrero tātou mō ngā tāngata whakahāwea i te reo Māori. So, let’s talk about all those te reo Māori haters. Why are they so outraged? Dave Witherow, in a recent bilious piece of drivel in the Otago Daily Times, for example, almost equated the ongoing use of te reo Māori – inflicted on the hapless “English-speaking majority” – with the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I exaggerate, but not by much. His particular bug bear was RNZ's use of te reo Māori.

However, he managed to dismiss or ridicule pretty much every other context where te reo Māori is used, suggesting that it was all a plot of “the separatist commissars and their spineless friends in government”. Houston to Dave – not everything is a conspiracy and, taking a wild guess that you’re an older Pākehā male, my thought is that you’ll probably cope just fine, as no doubt you have been doing for some time.

It is depressing though. Just when you think that there is a wider acceptance of the value of te reo Māori in New Zealand society, out of their “it’s all political correctness gone mad” dugouts come the bashers and beraters. Don Brash, in his perennially unsuccessful attempts at being taking seriously, is another recent example, suggesting on Facebook that “I'm utterly sick of people talking in Maori on RNZ in what are primarily English-language broadcasts”. But perhaps this is actually a good thing? They’re obviously upset, which means we must be making progress.

As Emma Espiner observes of her Pākehā husband Guyon Espiner’s use of te reo Māori on RNZ: "These are people who look like them, in spaces which they feel entitled to, doing something that they can't fathom." That’s the problem with untrammelled privilege – in this case in relation to language. When the rules of the game change, even slightly, those with the most to lose, monolingual English speakers in this case, get upset.

Let me provide you briefly with a different but comparable example. For more than 100 years, there has been a political movement in the United States to make English its official language. (Yes, as in New Zealand and Britain, English is the dominant societal language but not an official language). The English-only movement, as it’s come to be known, simultaneously presents English as a linguistically superior language, as the only language of worth, while Spanish, its particular target of rage, is vituperatively dismissed as a “ghetto” language that disadvantages its speakers socially, educationally and economically.

The problem with these arguments, apart from the blatant racism that so often attends them, is that on both counts they’re simply wrong. If the US congressman who in 1987 argued in support of the English-only movement on the basis that “if English is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me” is anything to go by, its supporters’ grasp of history leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, how can Spanish be a supposedly ghetto language in the US and a national language in Spain or most of South America? As JFK once said, we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

The informed answer lies in the way the languages are positioned socially and politically vis-à-vis each other, not with anything to do with their linguistic merits. English is demonstrably the current world language because of a combination of history and politics (colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, the Allies winning the two world wars and, with the decline of Britain over the latter half of the 20th century, the rise of the US as the global geopolitical power, Donald Trump notwithstanding), not because it’s any more linguistically capable. All languages are linguistically equivalent – it is what their speakers (readers and writers) are allowed to do with them – being educated through that language, for example – that determines over time their range and scope.

So, the more te reo Māori is reintegrated into New Zealand public life – it was the dominant language of society and trade, after all, in the early years of Pākehā colonisation – the more its range and “usefulness” will once again expand and become normalised. And speaking of “usefulness”, the argument that te reo Māori (like Spanish in the US) is a provincial language, with no merit or value, is itself fatuous. There’s a certain irony, don’t you think, that those who dismiss the ongoing use of te reo Māori as relevant to New Zealand society do so on the basis that they don’t understand the language? Learn it then and you’ll be able to contribute more (use)fully to New Zealand society!

And speaking of usefulness, we also know from 60 years of research that bilingualism or multilingualism in any combination of languages is a cognitive, educational, and social advantage. Eighty percent of the world is bilingual or multilingual, so they should know. It is monolinguals who are consistently disadvantaged. To take just one final example: bilinguals consistently demonstrate greater “metalinguistic awareness” than monolinguals. Metalinguistic awareness is knowledge of how language works. Bilinguals are much more aware of this because in constantly moving between the languages they use, they necessarily have to pay close attention to both their similarities and differences.

So, to all te reo Māori haters out there, if you live in Aotearoa New Zealand, why don’t you know and use (alongside English of course) the language that is only spoken here, in this place? And, if you’re a monolingual English speaker to boot, ask yourself this: who is really the ghettoised provincial language speaker here? I’m thinking it’s you.

Dr Stephen May is a Professor at Te Puna Wānanga (School of Māori and Indigenous Education), in the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work. He is an international authority on language rights, language policy, bilingualism and bilingual education and critical multicultural approaches to education and, to date, has published 25 books and over 100 articles and chapters in these areas.

Used with permission from NewsroomTo all te reo Māori haters out there ... published on Friday 1 December 2017.