My mum forced me to take Japanese all through high school. She believed that a second language would open doors for me and that Japanese was the pick of the options. A passport to another life, she promised. The world at my bilingual feet.

There was only one fly in the ointment. I hated Japanese.

Instead, in my seventh form year, I boarded a plane to South America and threw myself headlong into Spanish.

At no point did I think to take Māori at school. If it was an option in the curriculum, I certainly didn’t know about it. And I doubt any careers advisor back then would have described te reo Māori as a “passport to another life”.

Yet, fast forward a few years and that is exactly the way things are looking. Te reo Māori is not just about cultural identity. It’s about opportunity. Combine fluency in te reo with a tertiary education and you’ve got yourself a lethal one-two in the increasingly competitive job market.

In just about every professional sector, employers are crying out for tertiary-educated reo Māori speakers. This isn’t some kind of PC mumbo-jumbo. Academics and researchers have known for a long time that the best people to help Māori, are Māori. We’re just not around in the numbers we need to be — and that’s a major barrier to what policy-makers call “capacity building”.

Take health, for example. Māori are over-represented in just about every single negative health statistic. The one that always gets me is that Māori are not significantly more susceptible to cancer than non-Māori, and yet we are twice as likely to die from it. That’s not a biological problem. That’s a social problem. It’s a sign that there’s something about the health system that isn’t working for Māori.

It’s not that anyone’s out to get us. It’s just hard to access, or engage with, a system that isn’t familiar, or operates in a way that doesn’t always understand our ways. There simply aren’t enough Māori on the other side of the stethoscope. We need more Māori doctors, more Māori nurses.

It’s the same in education — kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, rumaki reo, wharekura. If you’re a qualified teacher who’s fluent in the reo and good at your job, you’ll be in demand. That’s if you don’t get talked into doing your Masters or PhD first, because there are plenty of incentives to attract Māori into academia.

Broadcasting, too. Māori Television aims to be completely bilingual by 2020, but that won’t happen unless the reo graduates keep coming.

As for business, Te Puni Kōkiri has referred to the Māori resource base as the “sleeping giant of the New Zealand economy”. Iwi businesses, exporters and the financial institutions that support them are head-hunting business graduates with Māori language skills right now.

Te reo Māori is New Zealand’s future. Trouble is, our education system still isn’t fully equipped to meet the demands of that bilingual future.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a Māori speaking teacher in your kid’s classroom, or have a particularly motivated leadership team or whānau-led kapa haka, the only reo many children are likely to learn at a mainstream primary school is E Ihowā Atua, the national anthem.

It isn’t much better at secondary school. When we were looking at high schools for our 13-year-old son, we found that studying Māori would mean difficult compromises. To take Māori at our local high school, our son would have had to forego either art or music, his two strongest subjects. The helpful office assistant explained that it was the way the classes were timetabled. As Māori was classified as an “arts subject”, it would clash with other arts subjects. In other words, our son would be penalised if he chose to study Māori.

He could have put off taking Māori until Year 10 or 11, but that would come at a cost. He’d start at level 1 and be sitting in a classroom with kids two years younger than him.

Every step of the way, it seems as though there are obstacles in our path. And that’s before we’ve even talked about the quality of the reo being taught in those mainstream classrooms.

The other option is to send your child to kura kaupapa and wharekura. The emphasis there is all on the reo. But it seems to be generally accepted that, while your children might excel in the reo at a total immersion school, they might not have the same academic opportunities as their mainstream peers.

That’s how it was for Laughton Matthews, who recently graduated from Auckland University: “To get into medicine, which I was thinking about, I needed a minimum of two science courses, like biology or chemistry. But wharekura could only offer me general science, and even then, only up to Year 12.”

As a kōhanga kid, who had attended kura kaupapa as well as a bilingual unit, it wasn’t an easy decision for her. But with only maths, general science, tikanga a-iwi (a mix of social studies and history), P.E., art, and cooking to choose from, wharekura just couldn’t compete.

The switch paid off for Laughton, who went on to excel at a mainstream high school. But she described the Māori classes there as “absolutely terrible”. It’s a catch-22. “To choose wharekura is to limit a child’s chances professionally, but to choose mainstream is to limit their reo.”

Māori boarding schools around the country, also bilingual, may be an exception.

In the midst of debate about the future of Māori boarding schools, Hato Pāora just received a glowing ERO report. The percentage of students gaining NCEA and University Entrance at this school are exceeding national standards — proving that academic excellence and te reo Māori are by no means mutually exclusive.

So what is the solution, then?

At the very least, we need to change how we view te reo Māori. It isn’t an arts subject to be treated as an option the same as Japanese or Spanish. It’s not a hobby. It’s our national language alongside English, and it has unique value and professional relevance to New Zealand.

Raising the status of the Māori language is something we must do in practice, not just in name. This means recognising the potential te reo Māori has to provide long term career opportunities for our young people — with all the positive flow-on effects that employment brings.

We also need to see the ability to speak te reo as a skill in its own right. There are cognitive benefits to speaking more than one language. Going back and forth between two languages is a mental workout that’s good for the brain. Studies even suggest that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia. A Guardian article on the subject describes bilinguals as “getting all the perks”.

People often weigh up Māori against other “more useful” languages. But why should we be limiting ourselves to two languages? If our children grow up bilingual from a young enough age, learning a third and even fourth language won’t be any great stretch. That’s how it is in Europe — that’s how it could be here.

Another suggestion is to make Māori compulsory in schools. The Race Relations Commissioner, Susan Devoy, is a supporter, as is Gareth Morgan. A certain sector of the population is vehemently opposed. In a Herald column, Bob Jones labels te reo Māori “redundant” and says we ought not “waste valuable head space learning a dead language”.

But from where I’m sitting, we can’t talk about making something compulsory before it’s even available and universally accessible in the first place. Besides, in a slightly different light, we can see how making te reo compulsory in schools looks dangerously like we’re forcing it on people. How counter-productive would it be if kids came away from school hating te reo, the way I hated Japanese?

No. We want our children to love Māori — arohatia te reo.

Anyway, as soon as we talk about making te reo compulsory, we circle right back to “capacity”. Where do these reo teachers come from? Or do we just grab a text book, standardise the reo, and sacrifice all the richness and nuance of dialect and interpretation?

Clearly, we have a long way to go. The tide will turn, but it’s going to take a while. In the meantime, we all need to help raise the mana of the reo. That responsibility lies with all of us.

For my part, I’m trying to nurture te reo me ōna tikanga in my whanau as something vital and beautiful. A clue to the past and a key to the future.

And it may just be working, because the other day I was sitting on the couch reading when I heard an almighty thumping coming from upstairs. The whole house was shaking, interspersed with the occasional “bleh” chilling enough to raise the hair on my neck.

I tore up the stairs and flung open the door of the bathroom to find my boy, shirt off and tongue out in front of the mirror. “What the hell are you doing?” I shouted.

“Practising the haka”, he said sheepishly.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s all right then.” And left him to it.


© E-Tangata, 2016


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