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Tuesday, 23 April 2019 09:54 am

Found in translation – a korero about languages in Aotearoa

IN THE same way Maui’s fishing hook reeled in this mountainous little country, or Abel Tasman’s expedition to the Pacific exposed it to the world, my look at Aotearoa’s language dynamics has been just as revealing.

Well perhaps that’s an exaggeration, it’s probably more akin to hooking on to an undersized snapper from a rusty dinghy in the Firth of Thames. However you label it, it’s been my journey which has come with its own set of bait and tackle issues.Beached dinghy

Before I put fingers to keys I already had an opinion on the subject. It’s something I had discussed around the water cooler, and in modern times on Stuff chat forums, however mine was not an informed opinion.

I had no knowledge of Maori language statistics, no knowledge of bilingual advantages or disadvantages, nor did I know what the New Zealand government was doing to promote Te Reo within our society. I wanted to look at the issue from a neutral perspective but also not be afraid to allow my own personality to come through in my writing.

Once my topic was authorised by Whitireia top brass, I asked Google to alert me to new information on bilingual and Te Reo related issues. Whilst the stream of this information was steady, I quickly found there to be too much information.

The first four or five posts I used the google alerts to form the basis of my posts and often they would take me on a quest to look for different information that would not have been picked up by my alert feed. I did continually revamp my alerts with different words but I found that clogged my email up even more and discouraged me from looking at them, just due to sheer volume.

I narrowed my search criteria and whichever direction I thought my next blog entry was going, I would adopt my alerts accordingly. With future blogs I will not be adopting this approach as the time spent researching a new post was counterproductive.

Once I began I found myself starting with language as a whole. The statistics surrounding vulnerable languages was a little alarming, United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimate half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.

I was even more aghast when reading a prediction from a prominent US linguist who stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.

After reading that UNESCO declared with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, humanity would lose not only a cultural wealth but also important ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages, it made me concerned for Te Reo Maori.

The stats for Maori speakers did not make great reading and without a focused effort it was easy to see why UNESCO listed Maori as vulnerable. According to theNew Zealand 2013 census, only 21% of Maori have some grasp of the language, a 4% drop since 2001. By my rudimentary math that equated to about 80,000 people in the world who can speak some level of Maori. Approximately 0.000001% of the earth’s 7.1 billion people. Small fish.

While I was sure we wouldn’t get into the sort of strife that happened to the last two fluent speakers of the Mexican language Ayapaneco – when in 2011 they were no longer speaking to each other – I started to scowl and reach for my taiaha (my favourite blue biro) as I thought my worst fears had been realised.


(Photo credit: Boy)

My war path continued with the notion that New Zealand should be bilingual. The advantages of a human being having two languages to communicate with had huge upsides, particularly health benefits which I had not known before.

Studies have found that being able to speak two or more languages aids the cognitive process. The brains of bilingual people operate differently than single language speakers, and these differences offer several mental benefits. Such as warding off the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Besides the obvious benefits, it was apparent to me that no one else in the world was going to invest in the language and I thought New Zealand was missing a trick. Turns out it was me who was missing something.

While I still think Maori should be compulsory and taught up until high school, there is a lot of work going on to bring Te Reo into the mainstream. Maoridom and the New Zealand Government identified its vulnerability and have taken on the task of protecting and promoting the language, ensuring there is a connected and cohesive approach to education contributions that support and strengthen the Māori language.

As at 1 July 2014 there were 17,713 students enrolled in Māori medium education, representing 2.3% of the total school population.

Maori Language week, Maori TV, an increased number of Maori role models were all helping to bring the language into the mainstream and being funded and driven at Iwi and government level.

With technology reaching a wider audience, and Maori embracing that technology, it’s been fantastic to discover the use of Maori in these forums. Bringing it out of the marae and into the consciousness of society.

However while technology is aiding a Te Reo resurgence, it is also a potential language killer. With advances happening every day and communication predominantly going through some form of electronic median, language skills are not as neckeep-calm-and-be-bilingual-2essary as they once were.

I found the statistics on electronic communication fascinating. The work by technology giants Microsoft, Google, and the like, is improving so rapidly at times you do not recognise the advance until it’s already a part of daily life. The language tools these giants are building within their technology are helping us to communicate more, but it is also reducing our need to learn or care about other languages.

Microsoft is in the final stages of making real time translation accessible to the masses. According to Skype, more than 300 million connections use more than 2 billion minutes of conversation a day, breaking down communications barriers by delivering voice and video across a number of devices. They have seen language as a blocker to productivity and human connection.

This prompted me to start practicing what I preach, I signed up to learn Maori and have been at it for over a month. It was not ever my intention to jump aboard my own ship however I’m glad I have. I’m proud to be learning Maori.

After writing this blog I feel Te Reo is in safe hands. I’m not sure it will ever be a second language that kiwis are fluent in but compared to our Australian cousins we are in a much better state. Something which has not gone unnoticed by the common Aussie blogger.

With technology moving at such a fast rate, most people won’t have the time to learn a second language, or the easier option will be available through technology and be a more logical choice. However I would hope a harmonious fusion of language and technology will exist.

Within a generation the language should no longer be officially vulnerable. New Zealand should be proud of the effort and I hope my blog, and my subsequent language choices, will go some way in supporting that.

E noho rā.

To read further posts of Brad’s blog, please click here.

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is A journalist with an eye for imagery, an ear for b-side tracks, and a nose for Sasquatch.
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