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Herald on Sunday editorial: Reo challenge must be answered

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Hato Petera College deputy head prefect Chenay Dadley (right) greets Tariana Turia. Photo / Dean Purcell
Hato Petera College deputy head prefect Chenay Dadley (right) greets Tariana Turia. Photo / Dean Purcell

The use of the words "compulsory" and "Maori language" in the same sentence is enough to get some people's blood running hot. But the Maori Party policy announced this week is carefully worded: it wants te reo "compulsorily available" in schools by 2015.

The compulsion, then, would be on the schools - and, by extension, the Government - to provide Maori language teaching where there was a demand.

It's a canny piece of policy because it doesn't seek to compel anyone to learn the language (though the Mana Party seeks that for Year 9 to 11 students); the aim is to build part of the infrastructure that will ensure its survival.

As the Waitangi Tribunal Report 262 warned a year ago, te reo is at a crisis point: the number of speakers is increasing but is far from keeping pace with population growth, so the density of speakers is declining. Worse the number of fluent speakers is both rapidly declining and ageing. Extinction is reliably predictable and, without urgent action, remorselessly inevitable.

To explain what this country would lose if we lost te reo is beyond the scope of this page, but it should be self-evident to all but the most materialistic and literal-minded. A language is the essence of a culture; one cannot survive without the other.

Those who lament that it is a "useless" language have, without exception, never tried to use it, but they miss the point. It is not like learning a language so you can order coffee in Milan or close a business deal in Shanghai; making te reo "compulsorily available" would lay the first building block in a multi-generational process of teaching and learning that will pull the language back from the brink.

Obviously compromise would be called for: if only two students in a school wanted to learn, collaborating with nearby schools would make sense. But the Maori Party lays down a challenge; if we do not pick it up, we will have posterity to answer to.

- Herald on Sunday

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