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Time for bilingual Māori to join the multilingual world

Time for bilingual Māori to join the multilingual world

by Will Flavell
August 11, 2014

I love learning languages. I am a speaker of English, Japanese and te reo Māori. I have also had the opportunity to learn some Chinese Mandarin, Spanish and Samoan over the past decade. I couldn’t think of anything more satisfying than being able to freely converse in another person’s native tongue. I started learning Japanese in my first year at high school. I remember reading the school notices to host a Japanese student for two weeks and the rest is history. I studied Japanese for five years at high school and it was my major at University. I admittedly never studied Māori at school. It never really interested me. I continually got asked why I could speak Japanese and not have the reo. I would shrug my shoulders as I couldn’t at the time come up with an appropriate answer. However, I remember in my last year at high school learning about the Treaty of Waitangi. I learnt about the terrible injustices and atrocities that Māori experienced during the 19th century. I felt angry and disappointed about those previous wrongdoings which propelled me to make the conscious decision to pick up te reo Māori. I remember my first day at University in that I couldn’t say more than a few general Māori greetings and even struggled to identify which iwi I belonged to. However, I knew deep down that if I wanted to contribute to positive Māori outcomes particularly a career working with our rangatahi than it was a no brainer that I needed the reo.

Even though New Zealand relies on many countries for international trade, we are embarrassingly still a fairly monolingual society. We have our own thriving indigenous language where access to resources are abundant such as Māori television, iwi radio and education classes to name a few. Why do Kiwis have such a lacklustre attitude towards language learning? Our largest city Auckland has increasingly become more multicultural but the number of secondary school and tertiary students learning languages is sadly decreasing. This will be a major problem for our future.

A few years ago, I published my Masters research on a Kura Kaupapa Māori in Rotorua that has a compulsory Spanish language programme. My initial feeling was that how could a Māori immersion setting teach a foreign language when these types of schools were set up thirty years ago to save Māori language from its death. How could introducing a foreign language possibly align with Kaupapa Māori values and principles? I was astounded by how sophisticated this Spanish language programme was in that it had employed native language teachers, received overwhelming support by the community and even had regular language and culture expeditions to Mexico. This Spanish programme is Māori ingenuity at its finest.

Māori are a creative, innovative and adaptable culture. It is exciting to see that the Māori economy is blossoming and now estimated to be worth around 37 billion dollars. I think that if Māori want to be truly global than we need to join the rest of the multilingual world. We need to create and formalise respectful relationships with other countries and this can be achieved if we put more effort into foreign language programmes. From an Education point of view, I would seriously recommend that competent bilingual English and te reo Māori students learn a third language. I would also advocate for all Kura Kaupapa Māori to offer an additional language to their students. Research clearly shows that there are many advantages to those who speak multiple languages such as building your multitasking skills, staving off Alzheimer’s and dementia, and the improvement of your memory and decision making. We also know that learning a further language enhances job and education prospects which can only be beneficial for our people. Let’s not forget our Māori battalion tūpuna that vigilantly fought in the Second World War came back to Aotearoa conversing and singing in Greek and Italian. Buona Notte Mio Amore anyone?


Will Flavell (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Whatua and Ngāti Maniapoto) is the Head of Māori Studies at Rutherford College and Elected Member to the Auckland Council Henderson – Massey Local Board.

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