Why Not Te Reo Language Assistants?

Owen AlexanderWhilst there has been great work in parts of New Zealand to save our Maori language and provide cultural revitalisation, the sad reality is that the Maori language is at a critical stage and will not survive in current conditions.

If left to chance, then it will join the 5000 or so other languages that have disappeared over the last 100 years.

‘Kahikitia – Managing for Success’ is a collective call to action. The strategy requires everyone in the education system to take responsibility for Maori Education success alongside whanau, iwi and Government departments. The question is, “How do we make the ideal real? How do we make this happen?”

The report Te Reo Mauriora (2011) is a wonderful blueprint for the future of Maori language in New Zealand and would ensure that this ‘taonga’ does not languish on the endangered list. How to do this is simple. We already have a very successful model operating in some schools with the Mandarin Language Assistant (MLA) Programme funded in part by the Confucius Institute and the New Zealand Government.

My school is one of the lucky schools involved in the MLA programme. The two short Mandarin sessions with each class in language and culture, has had a huge impact on second language acquisition. Not only has it raised classroom teachers’ capacity to infuse the language in other contexts throughout the school day but it has more importantly changed the attitudes of the students towards things Chinese. The MLAs, although not trained teachers, are wonderful role models who have been through a rigorous training programme and work alongside teachers to bring language and culture alive.

So how will this be funded? The Government currently spends $250 million on Maori language each year. I am sure that schools could set up partnerships with the fund-holders to access some of this money. If we believe the international research, which points to early exposure to a language bringing sustainability, then we need to take affirmative action earlier rather than later.

In our communities we all have native speakers of Maori who are fluent, maybe Kohanga Reo teachers or those who have participated in Te Ataarangi and have reached a competent level. Tapping into the human resources and putting in place a robust training programme could bring huge dividends to the teaching of Maori in New Zealand. In addition to that it would bring the true meaning of ‘one people, two cultures’ into a clear frame. We could put some of the misunderstandings that have arisen from biculturalism and the Maori world-view into perspective.

Te Reo Tuatahi is a group of enthusiasts on the North Shore of Auckland who are keen to take the ideas of Tim Grosser, who suggested that Maori language should be taught in all primary schools. Learning a second language makes it easier to springboard into others. This is so obvious when you go to places like Singapore where it is not uncommon for students to speak three languages.

There has been overwhelming support for the concept from Principals on the North Shore, who see the clustering of schools to share a Maori Language Assistant would add considerably to the work they do already. There are some exciting resources, both print and digital, that have been developed over the last few years that would engage all students in Te Reo. We cannot leave it up to Maori immersion schools to take responsibility for saving the language. Whilst we must keep in mind that 90 per cent of Maori students are in the mainstream, we are definitely talking about a programme for all students.

We will hear ill-informed comment from some people who know little about language acquisition and the benefits of a second language to develop understandings of English. However this generation is so multicultural, that learning Maori is no big deal I am sure. I think it is great to go to Fiji and hear Fijian. Wouldn’t it be great to visit New Zealand and hear Maori?

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