Paul Moon: Te reo becoming lost in translation

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Conversing in Maori offers a glimmer of hope for the survival of the language. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Conversing in Maori offers a glimmer of hope for the survival of the language. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Young speakers, not a state agency will save Maori language, says Paul Moon

Is the Maori language destined for extinction? Quite possibly. There is little doubt that English is advancing rapidly to become the language of our species. Stubborn strongholds of linguistic variety persist in certain corners the world but anyone looking at trends rather than snapshots can see that the writing is on the wall for these other languages, and needless to say, that writing is in English.

While the impending end to the problems of Babel will bring many advantages, the fate of minority languages is becoming a matter of some concern, particularly in New Zealand, where te reo Maori increasingly looks like it is being squeezed into oblivion.

For most of the past one and a half centuries, the state has been less than sympathetic in New Zealand towards te reo, with official treatment of the language worse in some eras than others.

But to be fair, the odds have been stacked against te reo, as they have against almost every other indigenous language in English colonies, regardless of official hostility or indifference.

Until recently, the demise of te reo was a private fear rather than a public concession, but a few brave academics over the past few years have dared to voice their concerns, and have called for action to protect the language.

Their motives are sound, but the remedy still seems elusive. Indeed, as soon as people urge the "protection" of a language, there is an implicit admission that the normal devices which prop up any language and allow its transmission from one generation to the next no longer function as they ought to.

If this issue is not understood and addressed, no amount of shouting from the sidelines, no amount of painstaking analysis, no amount of slick rhetoric, and no amount of compulsion will have much effect on the fate of the language.

Also troubling was a recent proposal for the establishment of a government department responsible for ensuring the survival of te reo. Nowhere in the world has such an approach worked, and the very suggestion that a government department could somehow revive a language in almost irreversible decline shows a spectacular failure to appreciate how languages survive and flourish, and how, for that matter, they also die.

Yet, if some dramatic change is not brought about, te reo may well persist, but only as a ceremonial language used in formal occasions, in the way the Latin in the traditional Catholic Mass once was.

Existence as a cultural curio or academic exercise is not the same thing as a language surviving.

For years, the Maori Language Commission has been charged to act as the state's custodian of this taonga, but increasingly, it has been playing the role of a linguistic life support system, keeping the faint pulse of te reo beating even though all the signs are that its condition might otherwise be terminal.

Perhaps part of the problem is that te reo is still identified primarily as the language of Maori. Its circumference has yet to spread to incorporate the rest of the New Zealand population.

Certainly, very few Europeans regard te reo as "their" language, and fewer still feel compelled to acquire it.

However, we are not quite at the point where the last rites can be pronounced. Amid all the gloomy prognoses about the prospects for the language, there are some shafts of optimism beginning to shine through.

One of these is the number of young people using te reo conversationally.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Nga Manu Korero national secondary school speech contests, which serve as an invigorating case study in all that is effective in the promotion of te reo.

Students strive for excellence in the friendly yet competitive environment, and the quality of judging is high, as are the standards that the participants are required to meet.

And yet, it is when the students are not on stage competing that the most encouraging signs of a revival are evident. Many of these teenagers speak to each other with reasonable fluency in te reo. There is no compulsion to do so, and neither is there anything contrived about it.

Rather, it is a case of young people using the language because they find it as a natural expression of their culture, and because there is an environment where speaking te reo Maori feels just as normal as speaking English.

Perhaps there is the kernel of something in these contests that the various state agencies involved in promoting te reo could consider. The cost of not doing so could be considerable.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at Te Ara Poutama, the Faculty of Maori Development, AUT University paul.moon@aut.ac.nz


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