“It’s my responsibility to look after te reo Māori too,” says Ahmed Aziz. (Photo supplied)

The dominance of English in Aotearoa is no accident, but the result of colonial effort to impose it as the primary language here. For many immigrants to this country, that’s a familiar story, as Ahmed Aziz reflects.


When I became a father last year, I made sure that the first words my daughter heard were in my ancestral language: Urdu.

ہم کو مٹا سکے یہ زمانے میں دم نہیں

ہم سے زمانہ خود ہے زمانے سے ہم نہیں

This is a couplet by the Urdu poet Jigar Muradabadi, which roughly means: The world is not powerful enough to erase us. The world is because of us; we are not because of the world. Then I did the customary Muslim call to prayer (Adhan) in her ear, in Arabic. I was very naughty by not doing the Adhan first, but Arabic is not my language, Urdu is.

My biggest fear is that my daughter will lose her language as she grows up in a predominantly English-speaking New Zealand. I speak to her only in Urdu because that will be her first language. But later she will learn te reo Māori because it’s the language of the land. And she’ll learn English too, because, well, there’s no other way, thanks to language imperialism.

Language is the lifeblood of human existence. It’s not just a tool for communication but a fundamental pillar of collective and individual identity. If you repress a society’s language, you’re not just taking away the letters and the words. You’re destroying the ethos, philosophy, literature, music, and the history of that society. This is precisely why language imperialism is an essential weapon in the arsenal of every colonial project.

Simply stated, language imperialism is the imposed domination of one language over another. In the historical colonial context, it’s the forceful imposition of the language of the coloniser over the colonised. English is the dominant language in New Zealand because of language imperialism.

The Indian subcontinent during British rule is another prime example. I use British rule in India as an example because I whakapapa to ancestors from British India who became refugees as a consequence of the partition of India.

English language and British rule in India

Before the arrival of the British, the Mughal Empire had ruled India (with varying levels of power and territory) for more than 250 years. Persian was the language of the Mughal court. Over time, in addition to the several local mother tongues, Hindustani, Hindi, and Urdu organically developed as vernacular languages. Eventually, Hindustani became the lingua franca in many parts of Northern India. Several Mughal rulers also provided extensive patronage to Sanskrit as it was considered the classical language of the powerful upper-class Indian society — however, there was no forceful imposition of one language as the language of the land.

After the capture of Delhi in 1803 in the Second Anglo-Maratha War, the British East India Company began ruling the country as a corporate empire, indiscriminately extracting wealth from India to fatten the purses of its joint stockholders.

Reports published as the British East India Company consolidated its power in the early 19th century show that there was a widespread network of Indigenous schools in British strongholds. These existed independently of the state, or with very little state funding. For instance, in the Madras Presidency in the 1820s, there were 11,575 Indigenous schools teaching in Oriya, Telegu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil languages.

The arrival of the missionaries during the rule of the British East India Company resulted in the destruction of the Indigenous school system and the eventual domination of English in the education system and the ruling administrative bureaucracy. With the goal of converting Indians to Christianity, they started to set up new schools across the British presidencies (provinces administered by the Brits) in India.

Initially, teaching in vernacular languages did continue but tensions grew between two camps among the British. The Orientalists believed that the vernacular languages would be the best way to impart western knowledge and Christianity, whereas the Anglicists were adamant that English should be the language of instruction. In the end, as we know from the current status of English in the subcontinent, the Anglicists won.

The logic behind the Anglicists’ thinking was that English would be a tool for “civilising” the natives. The Christian evangelist Charles Grant, who eventually reached the upper echelons of the East India Company, argued in his treatise (1792-1797) that:

The true cure of darkness, is the introduction of light. The Hindoos err, because they are ignorant; and their errors have never fairly been laid before them.

He continued that the best way to introduce this light was through the medium of English:

Thus, superior in point of ultimate advantage does the employment of the English language appear; and upon this ground, we give a preference to that mode, proposing here, that the communication of our knowledge shall be made by the medium of our own language.

The most prominent advocate of the English language in India was the president of the General Committee of Public Instruction in 1835, Thomas Babbington Macaulay. In his influential minute of  February 2, 1835, he argued that scientific or factual knowledge can only be taught in English. According to Macaulay, Arabic and Sanskrit were the languages of poetry and imagination and English was the useful language of facts.

Macaulay admitted that he had no knowledge of Sanskrit or Arabic but went on to say that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”.

He continued: “And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable.”

Wait! Didn’t Macaulay say that he had no knowledge of Arabic or Sanskrit? This reminds me of Richard Dawkins who has no understanding of mātauranga Māori but makes extensive judgments about mātauranga Māori.

Macaulay’s influential minute presents the same utilitarian argument that we hear today about the superiority of English. It led to the then Governor-General William Bentinck to pass the English Education Act of 1835. The main purpose of the Act was the promotion of scientific and European literature to the Indians in the English language.  It swept through the Indian education system despite opposition from both Hindus and Muslims to the prominence of western ideologies and language.

Although the law was amended a few years later under Lord Auckland to include vernacular languages, the stage was set. The tool of language imperialism dislodged mother tongues and vernacular languages from their previous status and created a class of English-speaking Indian elites. It was a massive cultural shift. The general belief that, to get ahead one needs to be fluent in English, still remains in India and Pakistan where English is considered to be a language of status and intelligence.

The dominance of English has created urban city-dwelling elites who are afforded opportunities not available for speakers of native languages. Being a graduate from an English medium school is considered a sign of high intelligence which leads to social and systemic discrimination.

In my formative years in Karachi, Pakistan, Urdu was the national language and the language of my ancestors. Sindhi was the language of my province. I was actively discouraged from speaking these languages. It was drummed into me that the English language is the gateway to success. Sending children to Urdu medium schools or learning in the provincial mother tongue was considered an endeavour of the lower class and looked down upon. It still is.

Language imperialism in New Zealand

I came to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2010. It was a fulfilment of a dream that I’d had since 1992 when, bedridden after an accident, I watched the whole Cricket World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand. I was mesmerised by New Zealand’s immense beauty.

I arrived here with the baggage of ignorance, thinking that New Zealand was a white country. I spent several years living in that wilful ignorance, and I kept my head down trying to be a model minority.

The door to history was opened for me by Dr Ranginui Walker. After reading Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou — Struggle Without End, I experienced a sea change in how I framed myself in my new home. I realised I had a responsibility. A responsibility to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, a responsibility to tangata whenua, a responsibility to tikanga, and a responsibility to te reo Māori.

I’m not just an immigrant, I am a tangata Tiriti. It’s not just up to Māori to protect their language — it’s also my obligation as a tangata Tiriti to look after it too.

In New Zealand, I found a familiar story of language imperialism.

The great champion of racial amalgamation, Governor George Grey, officially kickstarted the project of language imperialism with the introduction of the Education Ordinance Act of 1847. It mandated church schools to teach in English in order to gain funding. According to Dr Ranginui Walker, the aim was to assimilate Māori society into the European one as quickly as possible. This system was strengthened with Native Schools Act of 1858 and ultimately the Native Schools Act of 1867. English became the be-all and end-all of education even leading to corporal punishment of children for speaking te reo Māori.

Gradual loss of land through confiscations and the Native Land Court, the colonisation of the economic system of the country, and rapid urbanisation led to the massive urban migration of Māori in the post-World War Two era. By now, English was the language of upward mobility. Additionally, there was a great push for Māori to assimilate European/Pākehā culture. In a policy known as “pepper potting”, Māori families were housed among non-Māori families to encourage them to adopt Pākehā ideals, culture and language. In short, every effort was made to assert the domination of English over te reo Māori.

Te reo Māori had been the predominant language of the land at the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. By 1975, only 5 percent of school children spoke te reo Māori.

This is textbook language imperialism.

Resurgence of te reo Māori

Still, language imperialism in New Zealand couldn’t triumph over the resilience of Māori who have fought to defend and revitalise their language and culture. Since the 1970s, te reo Māori has seen a phenomenal resurgence in the face of constant opposition. In 1972, Hana Jackson of Ngā Tamatoa and Lee Smith of Te Reo Māori Society presented a petition with 30,000 signatures to parliament calling for te reo and tikanga Māori to be promoted in schools.

From being declared an official language in 1987, to the launch of kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori, to the establishment of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission) and two te reo Māori television channels, the giants of te ao Māori have secured huge wins for te reo. Still, there’s been continuous backlash from elements of New Zealand society, government and the bureaucracy who still hold on to the ideal of English supremacy outlined by Charles Grant in 1792 and Thomas Babbington Macaulay in 1835.

Language imperialism is alive and well

Now, language imperialism in Aotearoa New Zealand has been reanimated by the Luxon-Seymour-Peters coalition government.

Along with several other regressive anti-Māori policies, the coalition agreement directly targets te reo Māori and reinforces the primacy of English. Legislation will be introduced to make English an official language of New Zealand. All government departments must have their primary name in English, except for except for those specifically related to Māori. And all government departments and Crown entities will be required to communicate primarily in English — except those specifically related to Māori.

This comes in the face of growing proficiency and support for te reo in New Zealand.

In 2021, 30 percent of people over the age of 15 were able to speak more than a few words or phrases of te reo. About 8 percent of people could speak it at least fairly well. About a quarter of Māori speak te reo as their first language and 62 percent of people agreed or strongly agreed that it should be a core subject in primary schools. A majority (57 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that the government should encourage and support the use of te reo Māori in everyday situations. There is a surge of Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi (including recent immigrants) wanting to learn, with long waiting lists for courses across the country.

The latest attack on use of te reo in the public service sphere under the guise of “equality” and “ease of navigation of the government by regular New Zealanders” is the continuation of the tactics of language imperialism to maintain the supremacy of English. Any mainstream use of te reo seems to trigger a certain section of the society who feel that the dominance in language and culture they’ve achieved over 184 years is somehow in danger.

This perceived threat to the English language is behind the coalition’s move to make English an official language. English is spoken by 95 percent of the population. Most of the mainstream education curriculum is in English, and immigrants and international students coming to New Zealand must prove their command of English before they’re admitted into the country.

With all that, if English still requires a certificate of officialdom, then English has a self-esteem problem and it needs to make an appointment with a psychiatrist to talk through its issues.

The irony here is that the flag-bearers of majoritarian liberal democracy are now bound by the whims of political parties who got a total of only 14.72 percent of the party vote. These parties, Act and New Zealand First, are hell-bent on reversing decades of gains made by Māori against colonial language imperialism.

These gains are good not only for Māori but for all tangata Tiriti. As the stats show, the country is embracing te reo and is on board with its widespread use. Te reo Māori is the language of the land. English is the imposed language through language imperialism.

Waikato Tainui is already taking the government to court for breaching its settlement obligations. In January, an estimated 12,000 people gathered at Tūrangawaewae to express mana motuhake in the face of the coalition’s policies. If the last few decades and recent months are anything to go by, people don’t take language imperialism passively — they rise up.

As I sing songs in Urdu to my newborn daughter, I remember the advice from Paora Ammunson at Pāpāwai marae to teach my daughter my own language before anything else — that this is the best gift I can give her. Through his words, I understood that her language would be her connection to her whakapapa, her past, present and future.

English language imperialism endeavours to break that connection, and we, as a nation, including tangata Tiriti, have an obligation to fight against it.

Toitū Te Tiriti.

Toitū te reo Māori.

Ahmed Aziz, a Pakistani tangata Tiriti, is a PhD candidate in Māori Studies and has a Master of Indigenous Studies from the University of Auckland. He is researching the transformation of the justice system according to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. He is also a researcher at the James Henare Research Centre. In his free time, he writes a column in his local paper and is a standup comedian. 

© E-Tangata, 2024

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