Compulsory Te Reo Māori in schools – two academics, two views

12 Apr, 2017

Associate Professor Sharon Harvey and Professor of History Paul Moon share their different perspectives on compulsory Māori in schools.

Te Reo Maori taught at school

Māori should be compulsory in schools

By Associate Professor Sharon Harvey

Māori should be compulsory in New Zealand schools. New Zealand has an obligation under the Treaty of Waitangi to protect arguably, Māori’s greatest taonga and the only language that is indigenous to New Zealand, te reo Māori.

More speakers of Māori would give the language a much greater chance of survival in the long term because language loss and survival can be measured by how many (especially younger) people speak the language and the variety of domains in which the language is used. Importantly, learning Māori would give all citizens, including newly arrived migrants a more tangible engagement with New Zealand’s complex heritage. Given our geographic location, proficiency in Māori would provide young New Zealanders with linguistic access to other Polynesian languages i.e. Tongan, Samoan, Niuean, Cook Island Māori, and Hawaiian. Compulsory Māori in schools would be a tangible and focussed commitment to New Zealand’s future as a super-diverse nation developing strongly on its bilingual and bicultural foundation.

Quality Māori language education for all will require substantial time and resources, as well as a ‘hands together’ approach whereby all the stakeholders work in an integrated way to achieve the remarkable turnaround that New Zealand and Māori need. It is important as changes take place that high quality Māori for young people identifying as Māori is given the utmost priority.

Actually, many believe all New Zealand young people should learn three languages: English, Māori and one other (in many cases this could be their own home language). This would enable young New Zealanders to be able to act more confidently and compassionately in plurilingual and intercultural contexts at home, in New Zealand and abroad. Given the impressive language learning examples of education systems in Europe and Asia where young people routinely graduate from secondary school with high proficiency in two or three languages, New Zealand can do much better and compulsory Māori in schools needs to be high on the educational agenda.

Associate Professor Sharon Harvey is Head of the School of Language and Culture and Deputy Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Culture and Society.

Compulsory Te Reo Māori: The final nail in the coffin

By Professor Paul Moon

With Te Reo facing the very real prospect of disappearing as a living language, its fate is too serious to be left to the whim of policy opportunists.

Having spent more than a quarter of a century in opposition, the Green Party has fallen into the habit of producing policy best described as ‘all sail and no anchor’.

By calling to make Te Reo Māori compulsory in schools, the Greens live up to the expectations of a party that has been out of government since its inception.

The idea of making Te Reo compulsory has an instinctive appeal. A bold step in support of a language in a perilous state, it gives the impression that something great will be achieved.

But, it’s a policy bereft of sufficient analysis or understanding of the challenges facing Te Reo. If implemented, it would more likely harm rather than help the language’s prospects.

Compulsion in schools has never revived an indigenous language anywhere in the world. It is an inherently failed approach to reversing a language in decline.

Implementing compulsory Te Reo in schools will expend a huge amount of political capital. When (rather than if) the policy fails, it will make more well-conceived approaches to reviving Te Reo much harder to advance.

It also signals that the normal transmission mechanisms of the language have broken down. And, no amount of compulsion will remedy this. It is a policy looking for a solution in the wrong location.

Compulsion, in this case, is a rather unsophisticated reflex response to an intricate cultural and social challenge, involving a complex web of motives and nuanced sociolinguistic considerations.

It’s the sort of approach favoured by totalitarian regimes that feel the need to change something, but lack the insight to diagnose the problem and the acuity to effect a solution.

Paul Moon is Professor of History at AUT.