Guest Post: Why is te reo critically ill?

A guest post by David Garrett:

Last weekend we had a celebration for my daughter’s 16th birthday. I say “we”, but it was actually  one of those celebrations – a pig on a spit, mountains of delicious food, lots of singing – which my  Tongan rellies organize so well. I was pretty well superfluous, other than as a gofor and guest.   It was a wonderful occasion, with several of the young girls doing traditional Tongan dances, which are significantly different from those in other Pacific countries, and everyone singing in those wonderful Tongan harmonies.


My children have “dozens of cousins” – so many I can’t keep up, and don’t even bother trying to remember names, and who belongs to whom.  Whoever their parents are there is one  characteristic they all share: most of them are fluent in Tongan, and those who aren’t can understand it, and speak it  well enough to get by. When I remarked to one of Aunties that this was wonderful, and asked how they all  did it, she looked puzzled, gave me a playful poke – which nearly knocked me over – and said “It’s easy Tevita; we just talk to them in Tongan all the time and pretend we don’t understand if they answer in English”.


I tried hard to have my two children  also be brought up bi-lingual, but for whatever reason it didn’t work. Perhaps it was my presence – I don’t understand the language, so of necessity my wife had to speak to me in English, and I spoke to the children in English. They are significantly poorer for the lack,  and disadvantaged and somewhat embarrassed because of it,  at the kind of event we had last Saturday.


The bilingual second generation phenomenon is not unique to the Tongans of course – our local general store owners are Chinese, and their three children are fluent both in English and not one but TWO Chinese languages.  The Cambodian family who own one of the bakeries in nearby Helensville (best Chelsea buns I have ever tasted) have two university educated children – both doing very well I am proudly informed  – who are both fluent in English and their parents’ native language.


Why are things so very different for Maori, with the supposedly treasured te reo being spoken only  by a tiny percentage of the Maori  population, most of them – I suspect –  university educated professionals?  Why are there incessant demands for “funding” and government action of various kinds to preserve the  Maori language? Why did the Maori language effectively almost  die out?


The answer given by – frequently  white – university educated agitators is that it was  “beaten out of them” due to  the cruel honkey gummint. Incredibly, my daughter was told last year  by her 23 year old teacher that Maori children were “beaten for speaking their language” as recently as  the 1970’s. I suppose for her, 1975 is as remote as 1840.


First some facts: It  is undeniable that in the past – the far distant past, NOT in the 1970’s –  Maori children were strapped or caned for speaking Maori at school. Perhaps I should repeat that slightly differently, so as to forestall those who repeat this claim ad nauseum – YES, back in the early to mid 20th century, Maori children were required to speak only English when at school, and were punished using the methods of the day if they broke into Maori.


What is always missing from the now widely accepted heartbroken and  outraged  “narrative” is that the policy of enforcing the speaking of English only  at school came from Maori themselves! Most particularly it originated from the guy on the back of the $50 note – the eminent Maori lawyer and Cabinet Minister Sir Apirana Ngata. (A lot more very non PC initiatives which would make today’s  pakeha fish hook wearers squirm came from Ngata, but I digress)


In the 1920’s and 30’s Ngata, as Minister for Native Affairs, was ranked third in the cabinet, and occasionally served as Deputy Prime Minister. He was responsible for the then “native schools”, and was firmly of the view that to succeed  in the modern world, Maori needed to be fluent in English as well as Maori. Thus came  the policy – harsh as it may seem to the soft inhabitants of the 21st century – to physically punish those who broke this cardinal rule: Maori at home, English at school.


As far as I am able to ascertain – and I look forward to any reliable evidence to the contrary – the policy of “beating” Maori kids for speaking their own language was gone by the late 1940’s; it certainly did not continue into the 1960’s as the callow young woman who taught  my daughter last year told her class.


It is important to emphasize that certainly at the end of the war, the Maori language was alive and well, particularly  in provincial and rural areas.  Old documentary  footage of post-war  Maori Battalion functions shows those addressing the audience of their former comrades in te reo not English, and the speakers were  in turn acknowledged in te reo.  Clearly then, those who were being addressed – then still relatively young men – understood and spoke Maori.


For whatever reason the language died away within a generation or two, so that by the 1970’s Maori fluency  was confined to the old or very old, and to a very few university educated Maori like Moana  Jackson and his whanau. So, here’s the $64,000 question: WHY did it virtually die out, and why are taxpayers of all races – including my Chinese friends who run our local store – being asked to stump up to save this supposed treasure?  And why is the loudest noise coming from “Maori” who are as white as me?


It is quite clear from my Tongan rellies that “resourcing” – aka “government funding” – has nothing to do with why all my daughter’s cousins at least understand their parents and grandparents’ language, and most are fluent in it. My older  Tongan rellies are all from the bottom end of the socio-econmic spectrum; they are factory workers, kiwifruit orchard workers, and manual labourers.


 But the next generation won’t be: like the children of our Chinese store owners and the Cambodian bakers’, the next generation – my daughter’s cousins – are either aiming to become skilled tradesmen or to follow some profession.  But again I digress: this piece is about the fluency in their own language of our Pacific community, and other immigrants from further afield. In short, only the Maori seem to need a great deal of help with fostering a language which  THEY allowed to be virtually lost; other ethnic groups manage just fine without any help from me.


I will be blunt (just for a change); if Maori value their language so much, it is up to them to save it.  It is not the gummint’s fault or my fault that it became critically endangered. It is not up to me or to the gummint to save it. If they need any advice on how,  I can direct them to my rellies in Manurewa.



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