Calder At Large
Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Language on knife edge

Those at the frontline are fighting hard to preserve te reo.

Hera Tiakiwai teaches pre-school children at the Te Tira Hou Marae in Panmure. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hera Tiakiwai teaches pre-school children at the Te Tira Hou Marae in Panmure. Photo / Dean Purcell

It's a sobering experience to be in a room where no one is speaking your native language. On Friday, mine was the only white face in the crowd welcomed at the Mangere campus of Te Whare Wananga o Aotearoa.

The high-ceiling reception area resounded with the babble of conversation.

The impeccable quasi-military outfits of the Tainui kuia were set off with royal blue scarves, marking them out as part of the retinue of King Tuheitia, who was in attendance. Just as many others, young men with stained workers' hands, wore rugby jerseys: the Warriors were popular.

I stood off to the side, tongue-tied. Only snatches of the conversation were intelligible to someone with my limited command of te reo. It was no wonder English was so little in evidence - this was another stage in the long battle to save the first language of these islands.

By the end of this week, board members of Te Kohanga Reo National Trust will have held a dozen hui, from Tikipunga in Tai Tokerau to Araiteuru Marae in Dunedin, to present to stakeholders the Waitangi Tribunal report No 2336, whose more evocative title is Matua Rautia, or "Let a child be guided by many parents".

The report, published late last month, backs the claimants' alarm at what the tribunal calls the "renewed decline" of the language. In measured but unequivocal terms, it says the Crown has undermined the kohanga reo movement by a process of remorseless assimilation into the wider early childhood education regime. By developing policy frameworks that erased the distinctiveness of the language nests, they ignored the system's specific needs "as an environment for language transmission and whanau development".

At Friday's brief and pithy powhiri, many of the grizzled speakers leaned on walking sticks, which served both a ceremonial and practical function. But the presence of a small contingent of children underlined who everyone was working for. They peeped out shyly from behind black skirts as they waited. They held hands as they moved through the throng. They amused themselves during the speeches by competing to touch their feet with their noses as they sat cross-legged. And they were quiet as mice.

Yet if the kids were happy, the business of the morning was deadly serious. In the wananga's lecture theatre the audience was made up mainly of women whose staunch expressions melted only occasionally when they rumbled with laughter or applauded the speakers.

"You know you're poor," said board co-chair Tina Olsen-Ratana, before hefting a copy of the report above her head and bellowing, "Now it's official!" It brought the house down.

Conscious, no doubt, of the Prime Minister's expressed view that he can ignore tribunal findings, nobody was claiming victory on Friday, but it felt like an important step along the road. Olsen-Ratana said the board's relationship with Government had been strained. "We stopped buying the big cakes to put on the table at morning tea," she said. "It's got down to crackers now." The way she was talking, it's unlikely to get lavish any time soon.

On Monday, I drop in to the kohanga at Te Tira Hou, a Tuhoe marae near the Panmure town centre, where I am welcomed by kuia Harata Williams and kaumatua Tumanako Waiwai. Downstairs, in the centre proper, teachers Hera Tiakiwai and Rita Riki are doing a pretty good impression of cat-herding with their dozen charges. It's like any kindy, albeit not a very well-resourced one, except for the fact that everyone's speaking Maori.

It seems like the home of a language in good health, but the facts are grimmer: there are 471 kohanga nationwide now, compared to more than 800 in the mid-90s. One third of those face closure because their run-down buildings don't comply with codes.

Meanwhile, the numbers of native speakers diminish "at both ends" - the fluent elderly die off and rolls are falling. The plain fact is that the language is on the brink of a rapid and irreversible decline.

"It's not just about the money," says Waiwai, referring to the tribunal recommendation that the Government develop "a supportive funding regime" for kohanga. "We also have to look at what we are doing ourselves.

"We have to sell it. Our people like to see what is happening. You can tell them about the importance of learning te reo until you're blue in the face. But when they see people who have gone through kohanga and succeeded, they say: 'Well, that could be me'. And that's where the difference happens."

- NZ Herald

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