Maori language on life support

by Daphna Whitmore

Maori language week has just concluded and it felt like there was a lot more buzz around it this year. From media commentators, to friends, family and workmates more people are talking about learning Maori and plenty are brushing up on pronunciation. There are still debates in the media about whether to have Maori as a compulsory subject in schools or to keep it optional; either way a lot more teachers and resources are needed.

The Maori Language Commission called on people to support the revitalisation of the language: “Strength for an endangered language comes from its status, people being aware of and actively supporting its revitalisation, and through people learning and using the language. The language also grows by developing new words so that people have the right words and terms to use, for today and for future generations.”

What I haven’t seen is discussion of what the prognosis is when a language is no longer the mother tongue. No amount of funding and resource can transform the fact that Maori is the first language of a shrinking elderly population. The new generation of Maori speakers have English as their first language. Statistics NZ in 2013 estimates there were approximately 50,000 (11 %) Māori adults who could speak Māori well or very well. Many of the very fluent speakers were over 65 years old.  

In 2017 there were just 19,000 students in Maori immersion who are taught the curriculum in Māori language for at least 51 percent of the time. There were also  165,000 (20% of school children) learning some Maori in school.  Around 9000 preschool children are enrolled in kohunga reo.

There has been success in increasing the number of adults who speak more than a few word or phrases in Maori. It is now 55 percent, up from 42 percent in 2001.  However, these speakers will not be able to raise a generation with Maori as their mother tongue.

Efforts to revive the language can have a negative aspect. ‘Why I hate Maori language week’  by reporter Kris Boult is not a racist rant as the title may suggest, but a poignant story of guilt and shame at not being able to speak Maori. Boult grew up around grandparents speaking Maori and took lessons at school up until year 11 but today has just a smattering of words. 

Irish, Scottish Gaelic and several hundred other languages are also struggling to survive. One of the few languages to make a come back was Hebrew, but that was in an unusual nation-building project, which ironically played a part in hastening the decline of Yiddish.

Despite  enthusiasm and substantial goodwill for the language to be revived Maori is only hanging on by a thread and its long term outlook is uncertain.


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