Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Maori Language Week

By Nandor Tanczos

You can't force people to learn to speak Maori. Actually, you can't force people to do very much at all in the long run, which is why the PR techniques pioneered by Dr Goebbels remain such a popular means of social control.

No, Maori speaking will become more widespread in this country for the same reason that most immigrants learn to speak English: you can't be a fully functioning citizen of this country until you can speak the languages of the land.

You can get by of course, as did those old aunties I knew as a child, who had come out from Europe at an advanced age and who struggled to say more than the basics in English. Many of them spoke multiple European languages but that didn't help much in New Zealand in the 1980's so they stayed within their ethnic enclave, lived long and happy lives and never understood the country they now lived in.

What separated them, and I think most Pakeha, from the unashamedly monolingual and the proudly ignorant that I occasionally come across these days is that they understood it as a weakness. They would have changed it if they could.

I think that a growing number of people feel that about Te Reo today. It is embarrassing for both Maori and Pakeha to go on to a marae, to hear the kuia open the ceremony and lay down the kaupapa of the day with their karanga, to hear the kaumatua follow the women with whai korero, to hear the hapu stand and sing ancient chants in support, full of history and whakapapa and wisdom, and to not understand a word of it.

It is embarrassing to sit stony-faced as the assembly roars with laughter over the banter and the barbed jokes. It is discomforting to stand and mouth words to songs you don't know as the people around you fill the air with rising harmonies and deep booming notes. It is most of all disturbing to realise the extent of ones own cultural ignorance and incompetence.

For most of us that realisation of ignorance leads to a desire to learn more so as to understand more. For some others it creates a defensiveness and a retreat back to the comfort zone. Perhaps that is why some people continue to determinedly call Taranaki mountain 'Mt Egmont', continue to butcher simple Maori phrases or seek to make a virtue (and political capital) out of their refusal to spell place names correctly.

It's just the frightened child inside them, feeling lost in a complex world. Nevertheless the fact that many of us are less able than a toddler when entering a Maori environment is not really our fault.

Luckily Maori people tend to be extraordinarily forgiving of even quite serious unintended offences. They know that our education system does little, by and large, to prepare New Zealanders for the social reality of living in Aotearoa today, where the ability to walk confidently in both worlds will increasingly determine our ability to participate and succeed.

Most of us, I think, welcome this new reality. We live in Aotearoa, in Polynesia, and we reflect that in our food, our lifestyles, our attitudes and in the maorified English that we increasingly speak.

What is also clear is that, as with many other indigenous cultures around the world, the Maori worldview has something of great importance to offer a human population increasingly alienated from the natural world of which we are a part.

This is not to romanticise or wish away the many problems that Maori society faces, but simply to recognise that Maori people, after killing off the moa and irreparably changing the New Zealand environment, learned over time to live in balance with the natural ecosystems of this land and much of that knowledge remains. Pakeha culture has not yet done so, and has much to learn from tangata whenua in this regard.

Maori Language Week is a good time to acknowledge this, to do a stocktake of the state of the language and for people to pick up a few more words and phrases to bring into their lives. Hopefully it will also renew that desire in a few more of us to become true bicultural citizens.

(from Monkeywrenching)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Surely learning to speak 'Te Reo' is more relevant in Aotearoa, than french, latin or even Mandarin ?
If it was offered when I was at school (many moons ago) I certainly would have considered learning it.. Kia-ora Koutou Katoa.

Praises in the name of the most high, Jah Ras Tafari