New Zealand: The changing tide of te reo

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 6 20:50:49 UTC 2007

The changing tide of te reo

Census figures show the number of Maori speakers has fallen in the past
five years, despite multimillion-dollar efforts to revitalise the
language. Nikki Macdonald looks at the health of te reo.


Between softball practice and careering around with toy trucks,
preschoolers at the country's first kohanga reo in Wainuiomata move easily
between languages switching from Maori to English to accommodate the
white-faced visitor. Among the youngsters is six-month-old Ranai-Numia
Rimoni son of Te Awa Puketapu, 25, who was one of New Zealand's first
kohanga kids. She and her peers are the new generation of Maori- language
speakers, taking their own children to Maori language nests and schools,
and using Maori at home. But despite enormous government investment in the
language about $200 million a year the number of New Zealanders speaking
Maori has fallen from 160,527 in 2001 to 157,110.

The number of Maori speaking their language has risen slightly, from
130,485 to 131,613. But, as a percentage, that figure has fallen from 25.2
per cent to 23.7 per cent. Despite the statistics, Ms Puketapu is not
concerned about the future of the language, especially with initiatives
such as Maori TV maintaining interest. "I think it is pretty safe. I think
we have done the hard yards, we've got it out of a point where it is in
danger of going." She acknowledges, however, that kohangaare in decline,
with about 10,000 children attending about 500 kohanga last year, down
from 14,000 a decade ago. In 2005, 16 per cent of all Maori school pupils
(more than 25,000 pupils)  studied either in Maori or in a combination of
Maori and English.

It is not enough just to go to a Maori language school, Ms Puketapu says.
"It also falls back to the parents to get themselves educated. It's up to
the communities rather than the Government to be setting up programmes
where the generation that missed out can go to learn." A Research NZ-Te
Puni Kokiri survey last year of attitudes to the Maori language found that
both Maori and non-Maori were generally positive about the language and
government support for it. Two-thirds of Maori said they often watched
Maori TV. But Te Puni Kokiri senior analyst Tom White said some older
Maori speakers said they had trouble understanding their children and
grandchildren, or the Maori news, as the language had changed and
developed so much. A five-yearly, 74-question Maori competency survey run
by Reid Research has just been completed.

Results are not yet available, but Reid field manager Charlie Strivens
studied its findings. Only 1 per cent to 2 per cent of Maori were fluent
enough to do the survey in Maori, Ms Strivens said. Those aged in their
20s and 30s, and older people who grew up speaking Maori at home, had the
best language skills. Many had a reasonable level of understanding, but
lacked the confidence to speak it, feeling there was not enough situations
to safely practise without fear of ridicule, she said. Some respondents
were also concerned about a drop-off in proficiency after the kohanga reo
level. Interviewer and Victoria University student Monique Franks who is
taking Maori alongside her law degree says there is an enormous range of
skills, from those who speak fluently to those who can manage only a kia
ora. "My overall impression is that it is used more than we think."

Fluency is higher in Otaki where the Wananga o Raukawa is based and in the
homes of those closely involved with the Maori community, and where the
children go to kohanga or kura kaupapa, she said. Ms Franks' university
Maori class is about 50-50 Maori and non-Maori. Many overseas students
choose to study both language and culture simply out of interest, she
said. Despite the overall reduction in Maori speakers, Te Puni Kokiri
policy director Tipene Chrisp hailed the increase in Maori speaking Maori
as a victory, after 50 years of steep decline of the language. "That
number had been dropping dramatically, till about 1996. Now we are seeing
a stabilisation."

Analysts would need to look at the age breakdown of the statistics, which
is not yet available, to get a better picture of why the overall number of
Maori speakers had fallen, he said. In 2001, the highest concentration of
Maori speakers was in the over-60 age group but some of those people had
probably since died. "My suspicion is that the age profile is changing,
with more young people speaking Maori." Language revitalisation was a
long-term process and major gains were expected to take about 25 years, Mr
Chrisp said. Already learning English, Maori and Samoan (from his father),
who knows what languages his children will learn in an increasingly
multicultural, multilingual New Zealand.,2106,3919171a7694,00.html


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