Kerre McIvor
Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: Why wouldn't we want bilingual kids?

I loved French at school. I started learning the language at my primary school in Waihi.

It wasn't offered as an option - I had to wait for secondary school for that - but I discovered an ancient English to French dictionary in the tiny library and started teaching myself a few basic words at lunchtime.

Heaven only knows what my accent was like. Mum and Dad didn't speak French - in fact, as far as I know nobody in Waihi spoke French in 1975 - but even at 10, I was desperate to unlock the key to communicating in another language. Perhaps it was because before living in Waihi my family had spent two years in Turangi.

At my school there, Pakeha were in the minority. Maori and Italian kids ruled the roost - a lot of Italian families lived in Turangi back then because the men were working on the hydro-electric dam project.

Perhaps hearing my classmates switch effortlessly and fluently between their mother tongues and English was the catalyst for me wanting to be able to do the same.

Whatever. By the time I went to boarding school in Hamilton, I was highly motivated to learn another language. I was put in a class that studied French and Latin and although I enjoyed it very much, and went to Alliance Francaise competitions, once I left school that was it.

And it's so frustrating now when I travel to France not to be able to speak the language. Words are my thing. I speak on the radio, I write columns, I MC functions to make a living. I love cryptic crosswords and puns and word play and discovering new words.

So to be reduced to being able to say little more than: "Une bouteille de vin rouge, s'il vous plait" is infuriating.

I totally support the Greens' initiative to make te Reo Maori a core subject, along with English and maths. The Greens (and some Labour MPs) announced this week they support universal te reo Maori for all students at public schools from Year 1 to 10.

The reason they didn't promise to make it compulsory should they become part of a Government in September is because they concede finding sufficient people who spoke the language well enough to teach it would be a problem.

This is not a new idea nor a new initiative. About once every three or four years, there's a call for Maori to be taught in schools and about once every three or four years, the same objections are raised.

It's a dead language. Nobody else in the world speaks it. Why not learn one of the languages of our trading partners, like Mandarin Chinese?

And it's not just European New Zealanders who disagree with the notion. Education Minister Hekia Parata, for instance, says although she is all for a bilingual nation, she's dead against making Maori compulsory.

She says of all the drivers for successful language acquisition, motivation is essential.

And compulsion, she says, is the antithesis of motivation.

She's right. There's nothing worse than being told what to do, especially when you're told it's good for you.

But there are innumerable studies outlining the benefits of learning and using another language. There is absolutely no doubt that creating bilingual children gives them enormous advantages over monolingual kids.

If it comes down to it, offer a range of languages to parents, although I don't see why you wouldn't want to learn Maori. In a homogenised McDonald's, Westfield world, anything unique and different is valuable.

But whatever. Let's give our kids the best possible start in life - they'll be smarter, they'll be multi-taskers, their English will improve and they'll ward off dementia and Alzheimers in later life.

We might not want what's good for us. But surely we want it for our children.

- Herald on Sunday

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