The latest figures on the use of Maori language don't look too bad. An estimated 257,500 (55 per cent) of Maori aged 15 and over say they can speak more than a few words and phrases of te reo Maori. Just on 50,000 (11 per cent) could speak it well enough to talk about almost any subject in Maori. The larger figure is a considerable increase on the 44 per cent who spoke more than a few words of the language in 2001 and, better still, the main increase is said to be among young Maori. The era in which te reo was kept alive by a dwindling number of elderly native speakers appears to have passed.
But this means the survival of the language is even more dependent on its presence in schools. Those Maori who are products of kohanga reo and bilingual schools need to ensure te reo is their first language at home and their children follow the same educational path. They need to make the most of Maori media, especially iwi radio stations and their dedicated television channel since it is primarily an oral language.
Te reo has survived long enough now to suggest it will not be lost as long as a small core of determined speakers, supported by state funded organisations, can keep it alive. But how much better it would be, for the language and for this country, if it was not just encouraged but celebrated as it should be. Other elements of Maori culture are a warmly accepted in the mainstream of our national life.
The haka long ago migrated from rugby to all our sports representatives, and to schools and choirs and all sorts of occasions. The Maori version of the national anthem has caught on among the young who have learned it at school and it sounds so fine in stadiums that many older New Zealanders can only wish it had been part of their education.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Yet the suggestion that Maori language become part of the primary curriculum, which has been made here in Maori Language Week for several years, still arouses the familiar objections. Maori is not spoken anywhere else, therefore it is of no practical use. School time is too precious, let it be available for those who want it but it must not be "compulsory".
We are talking about primary school, where the curriculum does not provide many options. All children in a class are offered the same range of experiences. Maori references are part of many subjects, as they should be. Concentrated courses of learning the language would be a natural development.
The only practical difficulty is in finding and training enough teachers of the language. With sufficient political will, that could be done. It ought to have been high on the Maori Party's priorities as a condition of its support for the present Government. Maori MPs in the Labour Party ought to be pressing for a commitment from the party at the next election. A second language, no matter what it is, broadens the mind. A second language that is spoken nowhere else, enriches a nation and gives it distinction. Te reo is ours alone, thanks to those who are keeping it alive.