A proposal to put up bilingual road signs seems so benign it’s hardly worth the political attention we’ve seen this week. But, as Dr Awanui Te Huia writes here, the plan itself is a big deal — and she wishes the National leader Christopher Luxon would express his reo Māori pride no matter who he’s talking to.
I recently sat on a plane next to the leader of the opposition, Christopher Luxon. He spoke positively and emphatically to me about how he’d introduced te reo Māori to Air New Zealand’s operations and services. He told me all this unsolicited. I could hear the pride that he felt having made a reo Māori change to our national airline.
I responded positively to his effort, nodding and smiling, but I reserved my silent cynical internal dialogue for my cousins who were waiting for me at the airport. They know as well as I do how profitable having a “Māori spin” can be for mainstream corporations which have little to no accountability to iwi.
According to social identity theory, when we engage in discussions with strangers, we tend to highlight the parts of ourselves that we think others will appreciate. So I’m left wondering whether Christopher Luxon only raised his reo pride because he was talking to me, a wahine Māori academic, and was saying what he expected I wanted to hear.
Because this week we saw him giving quite the opposite impression about the place of te reo Māori in our public places, while speaking to an older Pākehā audience at the Birkenhead Bowling Club.
It seems that his attitude to our language depends on its perceived usefulness to him as a politician.
I’d hoped we were past all that by now. It’s five whole decades since the Māori language petition was presented to Parliament, asking for action because the petitioners regarded government policies on Māori language as “sheer tokenism”.
Yet we’re still seeing these instances of te reo being proudly used in private business for marketing purposes, but not being endorsed in public spaces where we can all enjoy what it means to see our language upheld.
The National Party is now trying to walk a tightrope by saying it does, in fact, support bilingual road signs but they’re not “a priority”.
As a Māori language researcher and teacher, I disagree. Such signs should be a priority. They are a small but important symbolic shift for us as a nation. Te reo Māori remains in a precarious position, and targeted initiatives that support our language to thrive are still absolutely necessary.
Signs communicate information on multiple levels. They tell us where we are, such as the name of the places that we’re occupying, which point us to the cultural and historical significance of where we are, and to whose lands we’re on. They also indicate where we’re heading and give us directions to our intended destination.
The plan to include Māori language alongside English on road signs does all of these things on another level too. They tell us where we are now, politically, and they hint at where we’re heading as a nation.
More and more people living in Aotearoa understand the value of te reo Māori. We’ve seen the proof of this through an increase in enrolments in Māori language classes, in the use of te reo Māori in broadcasting, and an increased demand for Māori language services. For many of these people, the celebration of te reo Māori is about how we want to see ourselves, and also how we want to be seen by others as a nation.
In addition to bilingual signs providing information about directions, or contextual instructions, they connect at an emotional level, too. Such signs tell us that te reo Māori is relevant and of value.
The rise in new, fluent generations of Māori language speakers has only been made possible through the enormous effort of Māori communities who saw the urgent need. But while te reo Māori is now normal for some younger generations in a range of settings, these tend to be carefully curated domains such as Māori education-related settings and associated events, kapa haka, and marae. It’s still extremely rare to go into a shop, service or department and be able to communicate only in te reo. We constantly need to extend these domains if we want our tamariki to see their language as normal.
Our children are highly aware of the linguistic norms of the spaces they exist in. When my six-year-old sees a sign in te reo Māori, she’ll read it aloud and ask me whether people speak Māori in that area or space. More often than not, these signs are in places where few Māori language speakers are present. But they still help show her that our language is normal in public domains and it’s preferable to use it if you’re able.
They also give me the ability to tell white lies, allowing her to falsely believe that more people use te reo Māori than is the reality so that she sees herself as normal as a Māori-language speaker outside of the home and kura.
Bilingual road signs will give new speakers important information about the value that our society places on te reo Māori as a national language of this country. It’s my view that these signs will be an important marker for the people who need reminding that the only language of this country before colonisation was te reo Māori. The signs are not pointing to a new and scary destination — they are reminding us of a proud and vital history.
While we’re still fighting to restore our language and keep it alive, we need every reminder that we can muster to ensure that all those living in Aotearoa know that te reo Māori remains the language of this country. Seeing and hearing our language in public domains is crucial for creating this vital shift away from language marginalisation.
As we come closer to election time, Māori will be gearing up to prepare for whatever else right-wing politicians have in store to gain votes. But it remains my optimistic opinion that a bilingual Aotearoa is where we are heading.
After all, the leader of the opposition seemed genuinely proud of his efforts to introduce more of te reo to Air New Zealand.
I’d like to think the conversation we had reflects his true position, and that one day he’ll be brave enough to express his pride in our reo no matter who is listening.
Dr Awanui Te Huia (Ngāti Maniapoto) is a senior lecturer and currently the Head of School at Te Kawa a Māui at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington, where she has taught and researched te reo Māori for over a decade. She also teaches Māori research methods with postgraduate students. Awanui recently moved to the bilingual town of Ōtaki with her husband Tai and their two children. As a rāwaho, she acknowledges the benefits that they receive from the efforts that the whānau of Ōtaki have created over generations to ensure that te reo Māori is normalised in this community.
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