Hard News by Russell Brown


Te Reo Māori in schools: let's just start

I was born 52 years ago today, on a date that seems unnervingly close to the 1950s. I caught the end of the free school milk years (they really did just leave it out in the sun) and I like to think I got the best of a New Zealand liberal education. We were well served by the state, with one significant exception.

The primary school where I spent most of my time now keeps a copy of the Treaty in every classroom and offers to "take all reasonable steps to provide instruction in tikanga and te reo Māori for students whose parents request it." When I attended, this was not the case. The only Māori content then was provided by a Pakeha teacher who had his kids build a matchstick and papier-mache pa each year and was regarded as something of an eccentric for his troubles.

In the couple of years I attended Greymouth Main School in the 1970s, I was lucky enough to be taught by George Wynyard, a lovely man who had just begun his career. George would eventually become the Senior Kaiwhakaako at Waikato University's Pathways programme, but 40 years ago on the West Coast there was no means for him to teach us te reo Māori. It simply had no place in the school curriculum.

Today, I feel the lack of that.

Duncan Garner wrote a tremendous column this week about being born in 1974 (young pup!) and moving through schools on the North Shore of Auckland which, if anything, seem to have been more monocultural than those I attended -- and his pride now in his two daughters, who speak te reo Māori fluently because they have received an immersive education through kohanga reo and kura kaupapa.

His older daughter is at a mainstream school now and doing well not only in her further study of the reo, but in French and Mandarin. Her brain seems, he says, "wired for language". We know this to be the case for all children -- learning multiple languages is a virtue in itself.

Duncan also records the disdain for his daughters' path from some Pakeha he knew, who "looked at me and asked what on earth was I doing? 'Why bother?' 'They’ll never speak it overseas.' 'It’s a waste of time!'."

We've all heard this argument: "They're better off learning Chinese!" (or Japanese, as the same argument used to run). The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but complementary.

But there's a bigger flaw in the utility argument, and it's this: if you fancy that your child will become a lawyer or a business leader or enter public life in any way, it's a given that they will need at various times to introduce and give an account of themselves in a Māori setting, and to want to have some idea of what's going on around them, both in terms of the tikanga at play and the words being spoken. It's an absolute advantage.

Not everyone needs to be able to converse fluently and, indeed, to gain that ability as an adult is a considerable achievement. (My Media Take co-host Toi Iti and his wife Tipare took a year off their jobs to take a full-immersion course to get themselves to the level of their kura-educated children.) And that's really a separate argument, one focused on redressing the slow decline in the number of Māori able to have an everyday conversation in te reo.

But it behoves us all to be able to give an account of ourselves, and even getting to that point is difficult as an adult. I'm fortunate that as a broadcaster, my pronunciation is reasonably good (much credit to Moana and the Moahunters' 'A.E.I.O.U.' for that) and I've been able a handful of times to whaikorero, and really loved doing so. But I can't really summon my own words, and I feel powerless for that.

I know things are better now than when Duncan and I went to school, but let's not leave it to chance. Let's include te reo Maori and a grounding in tikanga in the primary school curriculum, for every school. Let's use the resources we'd free up from dispensing with the dumbed-down National Standards (which, by the way, is an active barrier to schools embracing te reo) and start. It wouldn't happen overnight -- first we'd need to teach the teachers. But let's bypass the fearful and the bigoted, and just start.

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