Why New Zealand should keep the Maori language te reo alive

Justin Wong

Helping the traditional Maori language flourish would bind New Zealanders together as a nation

Justin Wong |

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The Maori remain marginalised and supporting the traditional language would go a long way in restoring trust.

New Zealand’s government plans to have 1 million Kiwis speaking basic te reo – the language of New Zealand’s indigenous Maori population – by 2040. There are also calls to make the language compulsory at schools.

Maori Language Commission Chief Execuetive Ngahiwi Apanui hopes that by 2040, everyday conversations will contain a mix of both te reo and English.

Not everyone in New Zealand supports this idea. Don Brash, the former leader of New Zealand’s centre-right party National, called the use of Maori “pointless”. Meanwhile, right-wing broadcaster Mike Hosking said that, “learning in schools must be about more than promoting things; Maori is not an international language, it is not a language of trade or business, so why should it be forced on all?”

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However, Hosking and Brash only succeeded in showing their ignorance of their own country’s history.

Te reo Maori existed in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand) before Pakeh (European New Zealanders) and the English language arrived en masse. When early settlers arrived in New Zealand in the 1800s, they had no choice but to learn Maori to communicate with the locals – they needed the Maori’s survival and trading expertise.

But, after settlers started to pour into New Zealand in the 19th century, Pakehābecame the dominant population in New Zealand. The Maori population started to dwindle because of wars against their European colonisers over land, and new European diseases like smallpox.

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The colonial government’s policies didn’t help either. In 1847, it banned the use of Maori education. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, the government practised an assimilation policy known as “pepper potting”, which placed Maori families among non-Maori families to promote Pakeh ideals, culture and language.

Today, New Zealand society still feel the effects of such cultural erasure. The Maori remain marginalised and excluded from decisions about the way the country is run. Mistrustful of the government, and with no policies which help them, many Maori often turn to crime. More than half of the prison population in New Zealand is Maori.

Making te reo Maori compulsory in schools would help to promote the real history and unfair experiences that the tangata whenua (people of the land) have experienced over centuries. It can help future generations repair the damage we have created, and bind New Zealanders as a nation. If we can sing our national anthem proudly in both English and Maori, we should embrace it in our own homes, too.

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I’m ending my piece with a proverb:

“He aha te mea nui o te ao?” (What is the most important thing in the world?)

“He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” (The people, the people, the people.)

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge