Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Te Reo Māori in schools: let's just start

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  • Hilary Stace,

    I would love to see NZ Sign Language offered too (third official language and also indigenous to NZ). Some schools do so it is not an impossible idea. As I get older and my hearing less effective, especially in noisy cafes, I think how useful it would be if we all had NZSL in our repertoire. There is also a real shortage of tri-lingual interpreters which could be overcome if both these languages became more mainstream.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 3226 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Rich of Observationz,

    So Chinese and German children shouldn’t learn science until their English skills are up to understanding books and lessons in Natures Own Language?

    It's fine at early stages but the sciences are almost their own language and as you progress learning the exact meaning of a word in the field as opposed to the standard (loose) English definition is critical. It gets to the stage where when you try to read stuff from another field you simply can't understand without consulting a source from that field. Doing that without good English comprehension skills is another layer of difficulty.

    And while I'm certainly not foolish enough to think English is the language of Nature I am also not going to ignore the dominance of English in science today.

    Those Chinese children you so casually mention are now paying English speaking scientists with authorships so that their scientific research can get published in the international literature. Those German children learn English anyway but certainly by the time they choose science as a career their English skills (especially written) are excellent, because unlike previous centuries English is now the language of science.

    So yeah, if you are planning a career in science in the 21st century make damn sure your English skills are the best they can be. By all means learn other languages, it will be good for you in many ways, but to plan a career in science without taking the time to become excellent in English is foolish.

    My single biggest regret from my high school years is that I did not take English seriously enough because nobody told me how important it was to be able to communicate in the language of 21st century science. I paid for that failure by having to learn how to write good essays at the same time as I was learning my science.

    There are lots and lots of great reasons to learn another language and lots of reasons in New Zealand for that language to be Maori. But when it comes to learning science, do it in English, because later if you choose a career in science you'll have to anyway.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    I could sit here ranting all day on the subject of language learning. As a language geek, I got plenty of that "why waste your time on that? Study something useful!" nonsense (I'm working really hard to stay polite here). Really, what could be more useful than language? What could be more useful than communication? None of your science or engineering or medicine or law happens without it.

    I also feel we've been labouring under a false idea of utility for far too long. A focus on skills of immediate practical use like hacking down trees and putting in fence posts was probably all well and good in pioneering days, but NZ has moved on since then. It's long since time we valued a wider range of skills. And about the only thing I've ever agreed with Bob Jones on is the need for people to study truly useful stuff like the humanities. Naturally, my own emphasis is on languages, but let me remind you all, NZ depends on international trade for its survival, always has, always will. And contrary to popular belief, the world is not learning English so that we don't need to learn other languages. Yes, English is the No. 1 dominant international language of science, technology, trade and international affairs, but:

    1: There are several other international languages.
    2: Still, the overwhelming majority of people in this world are not learning English. Gotta learn their languages to communicate with them.
    3: Relying on others to learn English to provide translators for us puts us at a multitude of disadvantages. One is the growing resentment of local staff at having to babysit linguistically incompetent monolingual staff flown in from overseas (yes, I have seen and heard, it is not pretty, and I sympathise. I've had to do more than a lot of that babysitting myself).

    But all my experience has been with foreign languages. I was born two years after Duncan Garner, and what I remember of te reo instruction in the many primary schools I attended is very much what Lucy Stewart describes. I would've thought the ten-year gap would've been enough time to improve the situation. It's been interesting watching from this distance the very slow bilingualisation of NZ, from the slow decrease in the number of common Maori words the NZ Herald feels the need to provide a translation for, through the increasingly bilingual passports (I suppose one advantage of 5-year passports is it sped that process up, but still, can we go back to 10 years like the rest of the world?), to the appearance of fully bilingual signs at Wellington Zoo and many other places last time we were in NZ, to my daughter's fully bilingual citizenship certificate. And by fully bilingual I mean both languages equally represented in equal size print, the entire document appearing in both languages, not the smaller sized Maori version tacked on at the end as is still so often the case. Some of the books my mum has sent my daughter have been bilingual in that tokenist sense, the main text with full-size pictures in English, then Maori in compressed version tacked on at the end. And, of course, Maori TV.

    Still, the stats showing a slow decline in speakers of Te Reo continue to worry.

    Sorry, my train of thought was interrupted, now I can't remember where I was going with this. I'll just leave off saying that a multilingual populace is a Good Thing and it should start with NZ's own languages.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Tamara,

    I completely agree Russell. Emma, that’s a sad story. My 80’s primary school in fairly homogeneously white east Auckland had a senior teacher who was Maori and we learned a lot of songs in Maori, which I can of course still remember. I’d like my children to have more than just songs.

    New Zealand • Since Oct 2010 • 115 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    What could be more useful than communication? None of your science or engineering or medicine or law happens without it.

    Yup. It's one thing to do science, it's another thing to communicate it, to other scientists and to the general public.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I wouldn't go so far to say its a myth: rather, it's a controversial hypothesis (although the evidence is still on there being a thing called "first language acquisition phase", the point at which learning languages requires less effort on the part of a child learner). That particularly article you cite is a) pretty old and b) doesn't even really do all that a rigorous survey of the literature of its time.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 441 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    I paid for that failure by having to learn how to write good essays at the same time as I was learning my science.

    Experience suggests a hell of a lot of people are in the same boat. Generalisation alert: The Chinese school system teaches the kind of hyper-emotional writing that could get you a good career as an op-ed writer for the NZ Herald, and so I spend an awful lot of my writing classes trying to persuade students to unlearn that. When they start university, Chinese students simply have no idea what academic writing is. Most of the academic writing textbooks I've seen on sale in the shops here are imported from the USA and seem to be what's used for those Freshman Comp courses they teach over there. There are numerous problems with them, not least of which is the simple fact that localisation is not slapping a local-language cover and introduction onto an otherwise unchanged product (hint: the death penalty and gun control are not controversial topics in China), but the biggest problem is they teach the same kind of hyper-emotional writing. Not academic at all, regardless of what the title says. I suspect the bigger problem here is not the failure to communicate the importance of learning one language or another, but a failure at a more fundamental level of literacy education in the school system. High school students need to learn to construct a logical argument based on factual evidence. I don't recall being taught much of that at high school ([ahem] not that I was paying all that much attention - French and German were far more interesting), and I see no evidence the situation has improved anywhere. So it seems to me just about everybody learns how to write a decent essay the same way you did - right as they're doing the work that requires those writing skills.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to HORansome,

    I wouldn’t go so far to say its a myth: rather, it’s a controversial hypothesis (although the evidence is still on there being a thing called “first language acquisition phase”, the point at which learning languages requires less effort on the part of a child learner). That particularly article you cite is a) pretty old and b) doesn’t even really do all that a rigorous survey of the literature of its time.

    Yeah. Sadly google didn't help because instead of finding the science I'd read in the last couple of years on the topic you end up with propaganda pieces from companies wanting to teach you their system for learning languages.

    I agree there really is a period where the brain lays down pathways in the language centres but that is really early. What most folks are talking about when they say children learn languages easily is the period between about 2 and 7 or so, a period when parents feel comfortable about shifting to another country without disrupting their children's education.

    The other half of the statement is that adults can't learn languages easily which really isn't true. What is true is adult don't learn languages.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4460 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    My schooling lasted from 1976 to 1990. I went to a bunch of schools, particularly at primary level, not all of them for very long, but they do provide an interesting comparative sample.
    I started schooling at the Correspondence School. I don't recall any Maori in my curriculum materials.
    Next, and in between most of the other schools, was little Colville school in the Coromandel. I have short memory flashes of learning Maori colours and numbers using those awesome coloured sticks - do they still exist? We also learnt waiata, and stick games (do they have a name?). However, that was a school with a student body where the old farming families had become outnumbered by the commune families, with liberal, educated and demanding (boomer...) parents, some of whom taught or assisted at the school, so was probably not typical of schools at the time.
    I went to Mt Eden Normal primary from time to time, and for the last six months of primary. No Maori language there that I remember.
    I went to two schools in the South Island in 1977-78: Makarora, and Hawea Flat Area School. No Maori language at either of them. Hawea Flat was a shock and a half: we had to call the teachers Sir or Ma'am (I couldn't, and therefore never spoke to them), and I recall a large God-quotient in the teaching (writing out prayers and hymns for handwriting, for example).
    I went to school in Wales. No Maori there, obviously, but they did teach Welsh. The children seemed to have learnt quite a bit by the time I got there (aged 10); they were certainly far too far ahead for me to have had any chance understanding the lessons enough to catch up. There was no remedial Welsh for me though.
    Next was school in Sweden. All the children my age spoke pretty good English, though there was a girl next door my age who didn't. I got Swedish lessons scheduled over most of the class English lessons. Although we were only there a few months, I came home understanding enough Swedish to read the letters my classmates wrote me, but it's all gone now.
    Where else... a few weeks at the Michael Park Steiner school in Auckland. No Maori there, but German lessons which I understood about as well as the previous Welsh lessons.
    Kowhai Intermediate had a strong Polynesian Club (which I felt too white to join), but no Maori language in class that I remember. And then it was on to Palmerston North Girls' High School, where I learnt French and Latin, and friends learnt German, but Maori was not taught and I wouldn't have taken it if it was, having somehow by that stage picked up some shameful attitudes. We did have to study Patricia Grace's Mutuwhenua in English in 3rd or 4th form, and I recall objecting to "having Maori stuff shoved down my throat". As I said, shameful, and I have no idea where I'd picked it up. I think one of my friends tried pointing out to me that there might be another way of looking at it, so it wasn't from them.
    Then the last two years doing the International Baccalaureate in Canada. One of the teachers told me that a girl there from New Zealand a few years earlier had taken Maori as her Language A (first language level) option, which impressed me. Ironic to think that someone could be supported in independent study of Maori at first language level at an international school in Canada, but it wasn't available even as a second language at my high school in New Zealand.
    'Course, it's not available at my daughter's school either, though there are other aspects of Maori culture included in the curriculum. Might need to have a bit of a think about that.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 585 posts Report Reply

  • william blake,

    Taupo. (toe-paw)

    Gwarn say it like it is meant to be said. If you can do this in public you will have conquered the mouthfeelfail and brainpredjublunderism.

    Since Mar 2010 • 380 posts Report Reply

  • Alison McCulloch,

    Thanks/ngā mihi for this, (and I'm enjoying Media Take). I'm now learning Te Reo and loving it madly. (Received none in school either!) I'm addicted to Korero Mai on Māori TV (why isn't it avail On Demand BTW, do you know?) and looking forward to watching Dora Mātāto and SpongeBob Tarau Porowhā. Hei konā.

    Since Feb 2008 • 6 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    Sorry, that was very long. The point, if there was one, was that at primary age, children in other parts of the world had already learnt foreign or indigenous (Welsh) languages to a conversational level; and I could learn their or other foreign languages, but Maori, the language of my own country, made only the briefest appearance in my schooling career, which is about as shameful as my attitude to Mutuwhenua, and probably came from the same pool.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 585 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    The other half of the statement is that adults can’t learn languages easily which really isn’t true. What is true is adult don’t learn languages.

    Absolutely. Ooh, the excuses I've heard... Then one of my classmates at Otago was 69 or 70 when we graduated, she did a double major in French and Chinese, Chinese being Mandarin learned from scratch. One evening here in Beijing I was talking to another guy about how much harder it is to learn Mandarin now than it had been to learn French at school, and we were rightly interrupted by Jim (might not be his real name, but whatever) who said, "Look at me! I'm 65 and learning Mandarin and doing fine! It's got nothing to do with age and everything to do with how much effort you put in." Yup.

    As for all those companies and all their.... bite my tongue. There are many, many problems in language education. Best advice I can give anyone wanting to learn another language is choose your resources carefully, find what works for you, but really, Nike: Just do it. And the internet means you have so many more resources available, including for Te Reo Maori. And some really, truly obscure languages.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Alison McCulloch,

    Dora Mātāto

    Hey, cool. That's one of my daughter's favourites, and she's picking up a few Spanish words and phrases from Dora and Go, Diego, Go! I don't think I have the bandwidth to watch it out here, but when we get back down to Beijing I'll see how she responds to seeing Dora in Maori.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Craig Ranapia, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    That’s a bit unnecessary, Craig. The world is full of languages and you’re never going to learn any more than a handful of them, no matter how hard you try.

    True -- but making an effort to start the day with "good morning", end it with "good night" and filling the interval with a lot of "please and thank you" in the local tongue(s) is a relatively simple exercise in practical diplomacy. It's the small pleasantries that get people through the day the whole world over. :)

    North Shore, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 12370 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Hilary Stace,

    I would love to see NZ Sign Language offered too (third official language and also indigenous to NZ). Some schools do so it is not an impossible idea. As I get older and my hearing less effective, especially in noisy cafes, I think how useful it would be if we all had NZSL in our repertoire. There is also a real shortage of tri-lingual interpreters which could be overcome if both these languages became more mainstream.

    All those things. Even just the basics would have multiple benefits. And I imagine there's a level at which it could almost be taught as play to small children.

    (Otoh, Tim Kong has promised to pop in on the discussion later to explain to us how all this isn’t as straightforward to deploy as we might like to think. We put a lot on teachers already.)

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 22848 posts Report Reply

  • Alice Ronald, in reply to Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    Those coloured sticks are called Cuisinaire rods, though I have no idea if they're still used.

    My experience was pretty much the same as Lucy Stewart's, through to Form 2 (mandatory Maori & Japanese at intermediate level, don't remember any Japanese). I decided to do German, and later Spanish, at high school, mostly for something new. I liked learning Maori, even if the most I do with it these days is translate the compound word place names I come across on roadtrips.

    One thing I know from studying several languages, it's not just about the words. You learn about different ways of life, social customs, history etc. Even with the little that I picked up during primary school helped with understanding lessons in English, Social Studies & History later on, and with life in general.

    Christchurch • Since May 2011 • 63 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    I suspect the bigger problem here is not the failure to communicate the importance of learning one language or another... High school students need to learn to construct a logical argument based on factual evidence.

    That's a whole different meaning of "language" though. I agree it's important and sadly missing in many education systems, though.

    Nelson in the 1970's and 1980's was very monolingual. I learned a little Maori at university but it's mostly gone now - living in Oz doesn't help. At school I had more formal instruction in French than Maori, and was firmly pushed towards the STEM stream which I'm still not wild about (although I would have preferred Japanese or Maori to French, which really was the option).

    I think NZ should take advantage of having nearly-one indigenous language and teach it to everyone. The same argument in Australia falls apart because of the 580-odd languages most are extinct or nearly so. Plus it's big enough to sustain communities in immigrant languages in a way that NZ really struggles to do, so it's quite possible to live in (some parts of) Australia speaking only Greek, Italian, Cantonese or Vietnamese. Probably others. My mother in law has slightly better English than my Maori, and she gets by. Which makes "which second language to teach everyone" quite fraught. Or maybe we should allocate one language to each school? Just because having multiple languages really means multiple teachers and that gets expensive and complicated. Better IMO to have "the other" language at each school or district.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1233 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh,

    Ah, finally... New Zealand did once have Maori-language newspapers. The Herald can manage to translate its masthead and a few articles into Te Reo for a week each year.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Ewan Morris, in reply to Chris Waugh,

    For more on this, see here

    Since Nov 2006 • 48 posts Report Reply

  • Chris Waugh, in reply to Ewan Morris,

    Thanks.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    All the children my age spoke pretty good English

    My German cousins have taught me what it means to be truly bilingual. They grew up in Germany in a household where they spoke English at home, as my aunt is English. My older cousin in particular is indistinguishable from a native English speaker in my opinion; she can do everything in English that you and I can do. My aunt speaks excellent functional and fluent German, having lived there for 40 years or so, but my cousin says that you can tell immediately that German is not her first language as she makes heaps of small grammatical mistakes etc.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 828 posts Report Reply

  • Rosemary McDonald,

    As a twelve year old, I left rural Derbyshire to live in extremely rural Far North, NZ.

    This was 1973, the height of the "punch a pom a day" campaign. I very quickly lost much of my pommie accent, and my acquired NZ accent was heavily influenced by Te Reo....spoken widely at the time in the Far North, including at the local school.

    This influence was so great that when we moved to the Eastern Bay of Plenty in 1976, I was often accused of being a "bloody Nga Puhi".

    Our family had travelled in Scandanavia whilst living in the UK, and we made a real effort to speak at least some words in the language of the country we were in.

    Largely forgotten, many years down the track there must be some residue left as I impressed a Norwegian family on a camping holiday in NZ by being able to converse at a very rudimentary level in their own language.

    It's only good manners to make an effort to speak another's language, shows respect.

    I cringe at some pakeha Kiwi's pronounciation of Te Reo. It is disrespectful, rude in the extreme. There was a woman being interviewed a while back regarding the Whangarei City Council deciding not to build the Hunterwasser Gallery. She must have said" Wangaray" some half a dozen times in her rant about the Council voting to kill "culture" in the North. Oh, the irony!

    Te Reo in school? Hell yes, compulsory up to form 3.

    I tried to get No. 1 son into Kohanga Reo in 1988. Sadly, this excellent initiative was in its infancy and a blond pakeha boy would "be out of place", so it didn't happen. There was talk that it was not right for him to take up a place that should go to a Maori child.

    However, much of his language acquisition phase was spent in an environment where Te Reo was regulary spoken, and he always answers the phone with a cheery Kia Ora!

    I suspect it is too late for me to learn Te Reo, but I would like to think my mokos will be fluent.

    Waikato, or on the road • Since Apr 2014 • 1346 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha,

    Yes, let's just start. Being Pakeha involves understanding Te Ao Maori to at least some degree, and Te Reo is a key part of that. I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had. I'd like others to have them too.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 19740 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    I think I might have mentioned the “critical period hypothesis” before on PAS. It’s important to note that it’s a hypothesis specifically about first language acquisition , not about “language learning” in general.

    Basically, young children are able to “acquire” a language – i.e., to pick up the patterns of a language by being immersed in it and using it to communicate, without having to consciously pay attention to the language itself; but (for a variety of reasons, some biological, others cultural) most adults have to “learn” a language – a conscious process that includes focussing on analysing language, and forcing associations to be created between forms and meanings.

    One biological factor working in favour of children is that they have many more neural pathways to use in processing the meaning of language. Connections between brain cells are “thinned out” (=synaptic pruning) as we develop and become more specialised as individuals – especially in two peak periods, between ages 3-6 and then again, less drastically, in adolescence; but also, at any age, there’s a continuous process of pathways that aren’t being used being lost, while pathways that are being used are strengthened.

    In highly multilingual societies, children who keep being exposed to new languages don’t lose the pathways that allow acquisition of the patterns of a new language.

    By contrast, if a society is
    (i) largely monolingual and
    (ii) doesn’t provide opportunities for true meaningful communication in other languages, and
    (iii) doesn’t introduce language learning in early education,
    then second (or, especially, foreign) language learning at age 13+ is much more difficult because it has to proceed using other, less efficient, pathways developed for conscious analysis. (Which to some extent also means that the learner's first language is being used to understand the second language, rather than a full "immersion" experience in which the second language is the medium of understanding.)

    Another social factor is that, by this stage, a monolingual individual’s national identity, their social network of friends, and even their own self-image, may be closely tied to the use of their first language, which can undercut any practical motivation there may be to learn a second language.

    Which still doesn’t make adult second language learning impossible; as others here have noted, it just takes more work.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1941 posts Report Reply

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