The first panicky headlines that came out of Timbuktu in January this year announced that thousands of ancient texts in the town's library had been incinerated by Islamic insurgents. It turned out, though, that most of the manuscript collection remained undamaged, and shortly afterwards was evacuated to safety. Scholars and antiquarians around the world exhaled a collective sigh of relief that this irreplaceable treasure was saved from destruction.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, our own struggle to save a vast library of knowledge - one encased in te reo Maori - continues. The Maori language remains the single most important repository for all the intricacies and nuances of the culture, as well as its history, philosophy, and numerous other branches of knowledge.

For centuries, te reo, Maori culture, and Maori identity, remained entwined. But no exclusively oral language could have been prepared for the sort of onslaught that te reo faced when another tongue lashed the country. In the 19th century, English was the language of what was then the world's most far-reaching military and commercial empire. It represented power and progress, prestige and trade, and from 1840, it was the sole language of government in New Zealand. And crucially, English was also a written language, and so could be transported and stored in ways that had been unimaginable for te reo in traditional Maori society.

Fast-forward to the present day, and te reo has proven to be susceptible to the same rot that has affected indigenous languages across the world. There is almost a sense of inevitability about te reo's demise, even though numerous efforts have been made to prop it up, especially in recent decades. So is its death a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily, but in its present critical condition, a remedy is urgently needed.


The old calculus of desperate times and desperate measures still holds, and has led to growing demands that te reo be made compulsory in a final major push to resuscitate the language. The thinking is that if school students are force-fed the language, somehow, the decline will be reversed, and soon the language will flourish.

Compulsion may be a well-intentioned measure, but it also is a terminally flawed one. Languages survive because they possess certain transmission mechanisms which ensure that they are used by subsequent generations. Resorting to compulsion suggests that these mechanisms have broken down. Surely, repairing the social and cultural conditions which will allow the organic process of te reo's transmission to function ought to be the primary focus of attention. Without that, no amount of compulsion will reverse the present trend.

And if you still think that compulsory te reo classes will somehow save the language, consider the hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who over the past several decades have learned French at school. To date, no French-speaking community has sprouted up in the country, and few New Zealanders converse with each other in French.

Three decades ago, I took French and German for years at secondary school, but both languages now lie moribund in some forgotten recess in my memory. By contrast, I live in a bilingual household, in which Serbian as well as English is spoken - it's simply a case of the right social and cultural conditions being allowed to prevail.

Perhaps such an approach, in which the circumstances at home and in communities are cultivated to encourage people to speak te reo, is the language's last best hope.

Dr Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT University, and the author of several books on New Zealand history.
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