Written by Joseph Houghton
NZ Born of Pasifika and European descent
I was blown away by the headline last week that Otaki would become New Zealand’s first bilingual town. It may seem like a relatively minor achievement, given that Otaki is pretty small, with just under 6000 people, however, it got me thinking. This little town, which has undergone a “reo renaissance” over the past few decades, is bold enough to declare that it wishes to be bilingual. In a postcolonial country such as New Zealand, this is a big step. It got me thinking again. Why have other towns not picked up on this before, and why haven’t some of our other mainstream institutions, such as schools, adopted this stance towards our other official language, and even some of our languages of the Pacific that are in danger of decline.
Don’t we already have bilingual schools?
I haven’t been living under a rock, I am aware of the variety of educational institutions in this country that offer total immersion and bilingual experiences for those who want their tamariki to learn te reo Maori. I am in awe of the Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Maori movements and I think that mainstream schools have a lot to learn from them. However, that could be the problem, that we have mainstream, and we have Kaupapa Maori. Separate but equal? (Insert thinking face emoji here). Our commitment to biculturalism (which ALL schools in NZ are obliged to have) should naturally mean that we have a commitment to bilingualism.
What would a bilingual school look like?
Imagine if a school, say Auckland Grammar, or Burnside High, a “mainstream school” that caters for the education of thousands of New Zealand students, decided that it would powerfully recognise the taonga that te reo Maori is in this country, recognise the true essence of biculturalism, and what it’s obligations to Te Tiriti actually mean, and strived to create a culture of bilingualism. It would require that the staff and student leaders actively learn te reo, it would mean that the school engage with the family of every student in the school community, perhaps holding weekend wananga and evening classes. Utilisation of the language should permeate the school, used in assemblies, classes, conversation, correspondence. It should be clear to parents wanting to send their students to the school that this is a major aspect of school life.
For a while I thought that “making te reo compulsory” was the way to go. Now I am less sure. Maths is compulsory, but that doesn't make students love maths, or even ensure that they are very good at it. Te reo needs to become part of the culture. It needs to be part of the way things are done. You have to grow a plant, you can't force it. In saying that, we can’t wait another 100 years for this to happen. It needs action, it needs funding, but most of all, it needs to be driven. Educational leaders need to lead on this issue, far too many put it in the too hard basket. Creative, culture based solutions will win over compulsion anyday.
The language my mother knew in her first years, the language of my grandmother and my ancestors, is Cook Island Maori. It is in very real danger of dying out in the coming decades. Gagana Samoa, Lea Faka Tonga, Fijian, and many other languages of the Pacific are not receiving the support they need to survive. Our communities need to step up, demand of our government, and more importantly, of ourselves, the necessary tools to keep our languages and thus, our cultures, alive.