A correspondent on this page today asks why the taxpayer is continuing to fund the promotion of te reo Maori when, despite years of its funding, the majority of Maori do not speak or learn their own language. It is a question many are probably asking in this Maori Language Week. They could be offered two answers. The first is that "the taxpayer" is Maori as well as other New Zealanders. Taxes are pooled for the good of all. The second answer follows from the first: a language unique to New Zealand is good for us all.
The word taonga is much better than its nearest English equivalent, "treasure", to describe a possession of immense cultural value. Every language is a wondrous creation of human society and every language will disappear quickly if it is not used. In te reo Maori we have a beautiful, euphonious language spoken nowhere else. To protect and nurture it is a duty we owe not only to our Maori heritage and not even just to New Zealand as a whole, but to the world's linguistic wealth.
The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural organisation estimates 43 per cent of the 6000 languages spoken in the world today will be extinct by the end of the century. A world becoming increasingly interconnected by migration, travel, satellite television and the internet will be a harder place for many languages to survive. Unesco lists te reo Maori as vulnerable. The New Zealand census in 2013 found not much more than one Maori in five could hold a conversation in te reo, 5 per cent fewer than in the 2006 Census. After all the efforts of kohanga reo and kura kaupapa and the investments in iwi radio and Maori television, its decline is a disappointment.
If the language is to be kept alive it needs to be in everyday use in Maori families, homes and communities. For too long, perhaps, the task has been left to dedicated schools and public servants with a commission to recognise its official standing and promote its use through broadcasting. A few months ago, Parliament passed a bill setting up a new iwi-based agency, Te Matawai, to try to find a new way to revitalise use of the language at the grassroots.
Already, the tone of this Maori Language Week seems more relaxed and positive, less earnest and educative. We are reading and seeing users of the language in modern settings rather than being given words to learn. Te reo has a search engine on Google, hashtags on Twitter and a tool is being developed for posts on Facebook. Te reo terms might become one of the social media codes young New Zealanders use to distinguish themselves.
While its use in Maori homes and communities is vital to its survival, it also needs to be more widely spoken. It remains a profound pity that the language is not one of those used in all preschool education and primary schools. Children's minds are astonishingly capable of learning different languages, much more so than pupils at high school. All primary teachers ought to learn the language as part of their training, and it ought to have happened long ago. There is still time.