It’s an exciting time not only for Māori but for all New Zealanders. Our growing acceptance of the Māori language and culture is the result of decades of Māori development championed by many past and present Māori leaders.
In the midst of all the excitement is a growing debate around making the Māori language compulsory in New Zealand schools — and, like most debates of this nature, it’s overshadowed by a negative focus on race and unhelpful comments from elderly Pākehā former politicians who have somehow become experts on the Māori language and culture.
Instead of focusing the debate on the benefits of bilingualism, they prefer to prattle on about the unfairness of being forced to learn a language they believe has no value.
It’s an old song, sung over many decades of colonisation by a shrinking minority of New Zealanders shuffling their way towards the country’s respite care services, and good luck to them.
Any effort to educate minds this firmly closed is a waste of time. It’s best to let them go out to pasture and remember them perhaps fondly, but only briefly.
Because the real issue is bilingualism
The sooner we move the debate away from a focus on race and culture, the sooner we can start talking about productive education outcomes from learning the Māori language.
Ironically, the most compelling reason for making the Māori language compulsory in schools has very little to do with the Māori language at all, and even less to do with Māori culture.
Learning Māori is just the outcome. And, quite simply, it’s a bonus.
The real benefit is the cognitive advantages of bilingualism — that is, the increased ability of bilingual children to process knowledge and develop understanding.
Simply put, being bilingual makes you smarter.
The ability to speak a second language improves brain function and, in particular for children, it supports the ability to focus attention and perform mental tasks.
Numerous studies have found that bilingualism improves problem solving, multi-tasking and decision-making. It even slows the effects of old age, including dementia.
That’s where the focus of this debate should be. It’s the “valid and acceptable reason” that opponents of compulsory reo in schools claim they’re looking for.
And it’s an outcome that works for everyone, regardless of their background, or even their ability. The research shows that developing bilingualism even works for children with special education needs, including Down syndrome.
Making the Māori language compulsory in New Zealand schools is not about the Māori language or the Māori culture, and we need to stop talking so much about that aspect.
That’s not the issue here and, quite frankly, it’s an unwanted distraction.
The Māori language needs to be compulsory in New Zealand schools so that future generations of New Zealand children can benefit from the cognitive advantages and academic benefits of being bilingual.
But why te reo Māori?
A common argument raised against making te reo Māori compulsory in schools is the status of the language itself. Why learn a redundant language? Why not learn a language that’s more widely spoken, and of more “value”?
The most spoken native languages in the world are Chinese Mandarin (1.2 billion), Spanish (400 million), English (360 million), and Hindi and Arabic (250 million).
If global usage is the criteria, why not learn one of these?
Well, quite simply, they’re really difficult.
For example, Mandarin is a tonal language where every sound in the base transcription system, known as pinyin, has four distinct pronunciations. It’s full of homophones — words that sound the same — and uses a lot of idioms and aphorisms, phrases with literal and figurative meanings and definitions.
Spanish is easier than Mandarin, but still difficult, partly because it borrows many words from other languages, but mostly because it’s one of the fastest spoken languages in the world, with native speakers saying nearly 7.82 syllables per second.
Hindi is difficult mostly because of the script, which appears similar to Arabic and is arguably harder to read than Mandarin. But the hardest element in Hindi is pronunciation — it requires a very flexible tongue, and many of the differences between words are so subtle that it’s easy to get them wrong.
Arabic is even more difficult for English speakers. It has a completely different alphabet with sounds that have no English equivalent — and vowels are omitted from written Arabic, which significantly complicates understanding when learning the language.
Te reo Māori is a much different prospect.
Māori is one of the easiest languages in the world to learn because the sounds generally stay the same no matter how the letters are grouped. Māori has only 13 letters — English has 26 — and complex English phrases and idioms are easy to translate into basic Māori statements and expressions. For children who speak basic English, the transition into learning a basic language like Māori is easy.
So, if the goal of introducing a compulsory language into the New Zealand education system is to enable children to benefit from the cognitive advantages of being bilingual, then it makes sense to choose a language that’s much easier to learn.
Not to mention a language that has a significant position and recognised legal status in the country.
Māori (since 1987) and New Zealand Sign Language (since 2006) are the official languages of New Zealand. Most New Zealanders aren’t aware that English, while being the de-facto predominant language in New Zealand, is actually not an official language of this country.
Yet we still resist embedding the Māori language into our education system.
Does bilingualism actually work in an education system?
Although the research shows there are clear cognitive advantages for children who are bilingual, does it actually produce better outcomes in countries where bilingualism is embedded in their education systems?
The evidence says yes.
Every year the World Economic Forum produces a Global Competitiveness Report. Countries are ranked using 12 pillars of competitiveness, including infrastructure, health, labour market, housing, justice, and education. Schooling data is then analysed and evaluated to calculate the impact and effectiveness of the education system on the state of each country’s economy and they are then ranked in order of quality.
In 2017, New Zealand was ranked ninth, tied with two other countries and behind eight others:
(9) Japan, Barbados, New Zealand
What do the top countries do that we don’t? And what impact does learning different languages have on education system outcomes for these countries?
The world’s best education systems
Japan focuses on achievement in literacy, science, and mathematics. Although high school is not compulsory, Japan’s high school level of enrolments is one of the highest in the world, at 98 percent. Japanese is the main language of instruction, but it’s compulsory for children to learn English.
Barbados invests heavily in education and its literacy rate of 98 percent is one of the highest in the world. Its education system is fully state-owned and operated, English is the main language of instruction, but students must also learn French and Spanish.
New Zealand has a compulsory state school (85 percent), state integrated (12 percent) and private school (3 percent) system. English is the only language of instruction in the mainstream education system, but other language learning options are available, including Māori.
Estonia invests heavily in the development of ethnic minorities. It has one of the highest levels of tertiary training participation in the world. Estonian is the language of instruction in schools, but it is compulsory to learn at least two other foreign languages.
Ireland has a privately-owned but state-funded compulsory education system. Children are taught in both Irish and English and both are the main teaching instruction languages.
Qatar invests heavily in education innovation. Schools are government-funded and free but most kids go to private schools. The language of instruction is Arabic, but English is also compulsory.
The Netherlands operates religious schools, state schools, and private schools. The language of instruction is English, but students are required to learn German and French and can be taught in those languages.
Singapore has a very high focus on achievement. The language of instruction is English but students are required to learn Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.
In Belgium, education is the government’s highest priority with the largest budget allocation. Public and private schools are available to all children. Schools are owned by communities and the pupils learn in the languages of Flemish, French, and German.
Switzerland operates a public (95 percent) and private school (5 percent) education system. Schools are owned and managed by Swiss member states called Cantons with base languages. Education is taught in German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
Finland has operated the best education system for many years now. They apply a no-banding system where all pupils regardless of ability, are taught in the same class. The education gap in Finland is the smallest in the world. The languages of education instruction are English, Swedish, German, and Finnish.
Foreign language skills are a priority in Finland’s education system and, because of this, 77 percent of the Finnish population can speak more than one foreign language and 92 percent speak the indigenous language. Finland has one of the highest bilingual populations in the world.
So what does this mean?
New Zealand is the only country in this group where children learn in one language in the mainstream education system. It’s also the only country where the indigenous language is only offered as a study option.
In every other country, children are required to know the indigenous language and at least one or two foreign languages. In some countries, it’s compulsory for children to learn in three or four languages.
In the top three countries, the education system is mostly managed and operated by the communities they serve, in the language they speak in those communities.
The country with the best education system is Finland and, although they have comprehensive education strategies, in-class delivery focuses primarily on children learning different languages. Closing the education gap and developing foreign language skills has been a priority in Finland since the 1970s.
Among the 11 best education systems in the world, New Zealand has the only education system where learning in more than one language isn’t compulsory.
The relevance of bilingualism in the success of education systems from the other 10 countries is a clear illustration of how they consistently produce the best education achievements and outcomes.
Why New Zealand should do this
There’s no denying it would be a brave move for any New Zealand government to implement an education policy making Māori compulsory in New Zealand schools. Some would call it political suicide and it’s unlikely to be a significant vote winner.
But it’s hard to deny the evidence.
The number one education system in the world, Finland, is a great example of how bilingualism works in education. There’s no banding system — children, regardless of ability, are taught together — and learning languages, including the indigenous dialect, is compulsory.
The fact that Finland has one of the highest bilingual populations in the world is a direct outcome of their education policy.
It’s no coincidence that Finland’s education system is consistently ranked the best in the world — producing benefits not just for their children, but for the nation’s economy.
Bilingualism produces cognitive advantages and benefits that are inextricably linked to better education outcomes and achievements.
One of the issues not covered here in detail is the community impact of bilingualism for the country.
There’s a wealth of evidence and research to show that learning another language is a life-changing experience. It has a dramatic effect on how individuals see the world, how they see themselves, and the relationships they have with other people.
Māori people, especially those with only a limited sense of ethnic identity, would undoubtedly benefit from learning te reo Māori at school.
However, the greatest benefit would actually be for those children and families who aren’t Māori.
Making Māori compulsory in schools would give non-Māori New Zealanders a strategic position and role in the country’s future. The intergenerational impact of that would change the face of the country. It could potentially create an atmosphere of cultural harmony and ethnic synergy never seen here before.
Ironically, making te reo compulsory in schools could mean that the next generations of non-Māori New Zealanders may well become the new catalysts of decolonisation — simply because they’d better understand and appreciate the complexities of Māori self-determination.
Today, we’re seeing more and more examples of non-Māori New Zealanders not only making the effort to learn the Māori language but actively promoting the virtues of their experiences.
The landscape of fluent Māori language speakers is radically shifting — and now it even includes the Chinese mayor of Gisborne, Meng Foon, and a Pākehā celebrity, actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand. As the number of fluent non-Māori New Zealanders increases, they too will become leaders of Māori language and cultural revitalisation.
More importantly, they’ll have a greater influence on the vast majority of mainstream New Zealand society simply by role modelling what they do.
Making te reo Māori compulsory in schools would increase the number of non-Māori New Zealanders thriving, growing, and changing through the cognitive benefits of learning the Māori language. I believe this would have a much more positive impact on New Zealand society than any government’s social development programmes or strategies.
An education policy like this may well become the greatest strategy for racial harmony and social cohesion that this country has ever seen.
It’s unlikely that Māori will ever become the dominant language of the country, but making te reo compulsory could herald an era of New Zealand children growing up educated and skilled in the western world, while proud and proficient in the Māori world — whatever their ancestry.
The cultural, social, and political identity of Aotearoa New Zealand could become more clearly defined than at any other time in New Zealand’s history.
“I don’t think that te reo Māori is ever going to be the predominant language in this country, and I say that with a heavy heart, but I’d love to see all the tamariki (children) have it as a compulsory subject so that their wonderful sponge-like brains can soak up the reo and give them an ease around the Māori language and culture.”
Jennifer Ward-Lealand (2016, Ngāti Pākehā)
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