Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan: It's Aotearoa, that's why Te Reo

Despite decades of half-pai Te Reo teaching to kids, the language hasn't gained ground - if it were compulsory in schools, it might.
Despite decades of half-pai Te Reo teaching to kids, the language hasn't gained ground - if it were compulsory in schools, it might.

You have to hand it to us Kiwis when it comes to doing a job half-pai. We are masters at the Claytons compromise.

We got halfway through building Parliament, then stopped.

In the spot where the other half should have gone, we plonked something shaped like a sandcastle, wiped our hands on our overalls and announced it'd do just fine.

They needed a harbour bridge for Auckland, but goodness knows where the ideas people thought we'd get the money for all those lanes, so we chopped a couple off the design. Pedestrians and cyclists just have to go the long way around.

And when they said we needed to do something to save the Maori language, we had just the right plan for that.

Give it a week, say "kia ora" a few times, then forget about it for the rest of the year.

Tokenism. That's all Maori Language Week is. It assuages our guilt for not bothering to learn the native tongue of this country but does nothing to prevent its demise.

We have been marking the week since 1975, yet the number of Maori speakers still keeps falling.

Hands up who booked a spot in a reo course because the TV weather used Maori place names this week? My guess is no one.

Maori Language Week needs to go to whatever scrap heap we send our half-pai ideas to. It's time to do this job properly and make Te Reo compulsory in schools.

Herewith a shortlist of likely objections to that suggestion, with rebuttal.

No one wants to learn it.

Not true. I recently tried to enrol for a university course and all five weekly lectures are full. There's a waiting list of 20-30. I'm told this happens every semester.

Te Reo is pointless.

It's not a language you'd learn to conduct international business but never underestimate the power of a language in building a strong national identity. Every time someone remarks on the similarities between Kiwis and the colonising Brits, here's your point of difference. And do I need to mention the fun we could have gossiping in Reo in front of foreigners?

Making it compulsory in schools would be expensive.

It doesn't have to be expensive. Every school would need at least one Maori-speaking teacher. Bigger schools would need more. But those teachers would teach other subjects, too, so schools would simply replace the retiring maths teacher with one who speaks Maori. If you give the education system 10 years' warning, teachers' colleges would have time to enrol and train maths, science and English teachers who can also teach Te Reo.

It won't save the Maori language.

Tell that to the Welsh.

Eighty years ago, nearly 37 per cent spoke Welsh. By 1991, fewer than 19 per cent understood the language. So in the 1990s they made it compulsory learning for kids under 14 and the number of Welsh speakers in the country hasn't really dropped below 19 per cent since, which is pretty remarkable when you consider all the older Welsh speakers who have died since 1991.

I can't be bothered.

You don't have to. Your kids do. It's the ultimate punishment for the sins of the forefathers.

Maori Language Week may be one of our worst compromises yet. We settled for a single-lane swing bridge, or a lean-to hanging off the side of Parliament.

Everything is not ka pai.

- Herald on Sunday

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Heather du Plessis-Allan is a columnist for the Herald on Sunday

Heather du Plessis-Allan is a thirty-something trying very hard to avoid growing up. So far it’s working, except for the husband, the mortgage and the proper job. She lives between Auckland and Wellington. When she’s not writing for the Herald on Sunday, she co-hosts TV3’s 7pm current affairs programme Story.

Read more by Heather du Plessis-Allan

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