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Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Trying to get Maori on the menu

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Group's aim is to get eight Maori language assistants into North Shore schools with the help of Budget cash.

Mel Davis (left) and Raewyn Harrison prepare students at Takapuna Normal Intermediate for their Maori Language Week breakfast. Photo / Dean Purcell
Mel Davis (left) and Raewyn Harrison prepare students at Takapuna Normal Intermediate for their Maori Language Week breakfast. Photo / Dean Purcell

The kids in Room 19 at Takapuna Normal Intermediate School seem riveted to their chairs as the woman at the front of the class belts out a song that makes the steel rafters ring.

With braided hair and knee-length boots, she looks the part - she might have just stepped off the stage. But, her pop rhythms notwithstanding, the singer, Mel Davis, isn't performing: her song is more in the nature of a karanga - a call, a summons, a focusing of attention.

Davis and her mother, Raewyn Harrison (Te Ati Awa/Ngai Tahu), are here to begin the long preparation for a very special breakfast, to take place in Maori Language Week at the beginning of July. The school's headmaster, Owen Alexander, will be laying on the spread; Davis and Harrison's job is to have the kids ready to talk about it in te reo Maori.

So the whiteboard is filling up with words associated with the first meal of the day - parakuihi, as it's known in Maori. The foods in the list the kids have compiled - eggs, porridge, toast, milk - are rendered into their Maori equivalents: heki, pareti, tohi, miraka.

The class is by way of a pilot for a programme Harrison hopes will spread out across 40 North Shore schools: it aims to put Maori language assistants into primary and intermediate classrooms for an hour or so a week, bringing instruction in the rudiments of te reo into schools.

The model is a Mandarin-language scheme administered by the Confucius Institute, which promotes links between this country and China. The name of the Maori scheme, Te Reo Tuatahi, or "the first language", could be seen as making a political point, but Harrison and school principal Alexander tell me there is no hostility at all towards the Mandarin classes. Indeed, Alexander says, it is very successful because it is sustainable: the assistants don't have to be trained teachers but they operate under the supervision of trained teachers who are, in turn, learning enough to eventually do the language-teaching themselves.

Adds Harrison: "We don't have any problem with the teaching of Mandarin. But te reo should have its place, too."

The Mandarin programme has a head start, though: it's heavily supported by the Chinese Government, which pays for assistants' travel costs and gives them an allowance; our Government pays for their health care; schools pay a fraction of the cost. Te reo, not being a foreign language, cannot get the same support.

PM John Key's enthusiastic sponsorship of the teaching of Mandarin in schools seems predicated on the blithe assumption that it will create an army of bilingual youngsters dedicated to forging links with the world's fastest-growing economy, though any language-acquisition expert will tell you that's nonsense.

Critics of Maori language teaching, who say the language is no "use" beyond these shores, are equally ill-informed. In half an hour a week at primary school, kids don't learn a language: they learn language-learning. They fire the cognitive processes that will give them a head-start in learning languages - and every other subject besides.

Alexander: "We know that if we learn a second language at an early age, we understand English and maths and everything else so much better. And we live in a country where half the place-names are in Maori, where the culture and mythology are all around us. Yes, it's about language learning, but it's also about being a New Zealander."

The spin-off, of course, is that Maori, a language the United Nations has classified as endangered, will be intergenerationally boosted by the broad-based uptake, as opposed to the high-quality learning a few students are getting in immersion schools.

"We know there is a lot of money spent on the top end," says Alexander, "and good on them. But 95 per cent of students are in the mainstream and the language is not going to be here unless we get serious about saving it: we have to act very quickly and work from the bottom up."

Te Reo Tuatahi, which comprises Harrison, Alexander, Jo (wife of Buck) Shelford and Brenda McPherson, the principal of Windy Ridge in Glenfield, wants to get eight Maori language assistants into 40 North Shore schools. They reckon they can do it for $500,000 a year and they are eyeing the $8 million over four years for te reo announced in the Budget. Don't bet against their getting their hands on some of it.

"Look at all the money we spend eradicating stoats from Kapiti Island," says Harrison.

- NZ Herald

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