FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Does Te Reo Have A Future?

The second language

By Roger Childs

Anthropologists estimate that there were over 400 indigenous languages in Australia before white men and women arrived. Less than 10% now remain. What lies ahead for Te Reo Maori?

In New Zealand there is plenty of official support to keep Te Reo alive and well, and there are many proponents for making it compulsory in all schools. At the government level, all documents, papers and notices are required to be in both languages.

The bottom line however, is that even if people and especially younger folk, become fluent in the language, will they use it regularly in the future?

Slipping into common usage

One of Bill Bryson’s best books is Made in America which is a fascinating account of how American English has progressive incorporated words from many other cultures. It also covers how the language increased its vocabulary as a consequence of the development of entertainment, transport, inventions and modern technology.

The vast majority of New Zealanders, who are not fluent Te Reo speakers, are very comfortable with the use of Maori words in Kiwi English and would probably be surprised at how large their vocabulary is.

Kia ora, mana, Morena, whanau (even Don Brash uses this!) kia kaha, iwi, aroha, whakapapa – to name but a few, are in common usage.

However, will the day come when most New Zealanders are using the language, rather than just a few words in their everyday lives?

Educational or tokenistic?

Staunch defender Kim Hill

Some Radio New Zealand announcers make use of Te Reo Maori in their broadcasting and some don’t. Don Brash was on a hiding to nothing late last year when he complained about Guyon Espiner using two or three sentences before the 6.00am News.

Kim Hill, defending her colleague, ripped into Brash on her Saturday morning programme and in the process breached RNZ’s standards for impartiality when interviewing. The good doctor’s view was that the vast majority of listeners to the early news would not understand what Espinar was saying.

Many people do wonder about whether RNZ’s efforts are just tokenism.

However, we do have Maori television and many Maori radio stations around the country working hard to keep Te Reo alive.

There is also a Maori language week and during those seven days the weather presenters on NZTV use the Te Reo Maori names for the cities and regions of the country. But do people remember those names in the following weeks?

Downs and ups through time

Much is made of Maori children being punished in the early 20th century for speaking Maori in the playground. Less well known, is that many Maori elders and parents approved of this, as they saw English fluency as the way ahead for their children.

Even the great Apirana Ngata shared that view, but was later convinced of the merits on encouraging Te Reo.

In the late 20th century with the Maori Renaissance, Te Reo Maori grew wings and now has the status of an official language. But is that enough for it to become a commonly spoken tongue?

What lies ahead?

The 2013 census found that there were about 125,000 Te Reo speakers which included about 21% of people with some Maori blood. But of the total New Zealand population the figure was about 3%.

Te Reo certainly gets plenty of official encouragement and financing, as in the funding of Maori television and the over 20 radio stations.

There is also government support for Gaelic in Ireland, and it is taught in schools and universities. However it is estimated that only 1% – 3% actually speak it on daily basis.

Does Te Reo face a losing battle to become a common language? Obviously it will still feature at Maori gatherings, in many official ceremonies and in the Maori media, but will the passing of the older generation see it used even less in every day conversation?

One thing is certain, many words and phrases will remain embedded in Kiwi English.