Time for politicians to lead with Te Reo
By Russell Marshall
The ongoing discussion about the management and stewardship of the Kohanga Reo Trust is a sad and unfortunate part of a much larger issue, the credible survival of the Maori language.
Historically, governments paid little attention to the retention of the Maori language.
There were of course Maori schools in the days when a large proportion of the Maori population still lived in rural areas.
Decline after WWII
When, after the Second World War, those families began to move to the cities and towns where there was work, the survival of Te Reo began to be more seriously threatened.
Families moved away from their wider whanau, often to places where there was little or no Maori spoken.
Sadly there was a time when speaking the language was expressly forbidden in schools and playgrounds.
For the most of the rest of us, knowing English was enough, though French and Latin continued to be taught to those being schooled to go further.
Teachers and other educators gradually began to realise that the education system itself needed to step up. It wasn’t easy.
There was, and probably still is, a sizable part of our population which sees no point in maintaining the Maori language, let alone in giving it a place in the school curriculum.
Te Reo drive in the 1980’s
In my brief time as Education minister in the 1980s we arranged for Maori fluent in Te Reo to be chosen by their local elders to assist schools with Te Reo. The first 40 were appointed in 1985, but thereafter adequate numbers with the requisite language competence were more difficult to find.
He wasn’t a bad rugby player either. In 1982 Kara laid down a challenge to his own Te Atiawa people to set work on keeping the Maori language alive by starting with pre-school children.
Te Kohanga Reo was born out of that inspired challenge, led outstandingly by Iritana Tawhiwhirangi.
Inevitably there were teething troubles and a few mistakes but three decades later some impressive progress has been made.
Schools lead the way
At the same time primary schools, as always leading the way, are increasingly making sure that Maoritanga and Te Reo are part of our children’s education.
This is not only taking place in schools with significant Maori population, as I have been witness at the Island Bay School attended by my grandchildren, and as from our house I can sometimes hear from Paremata School.
There is however, still a long way to go, before we accept that Maori, as a living language, is an essential part of our New Zealand/Aotearoa identity.
I am still waiting to hear to hear a pakeha politician making a fluent and confident speech in te reo.
If South African born Philip Langenhoven can do it for Mandela’s memorial tangi in Wellington, we can surely start to manage more than one language.