It is troubling to hear that the Maori language is at risk of dying out. Maoris make up something like 15% of the population of New Zealand and I believe that the language was nearly the same for all tribes (iwis) across the two islands that comprise that modern-day country.
The reason I think its troubling is that it demonstrates the problems American Indian tribes and communities are facing when they are trying to preserve hundreds of different native languages that were and are spoken by only a few tribes.
The press reports that Maori Language Week just ended and, as usual, its presence was marked by the embarrassingly bilingual efforts of television broadcasters.
The report is concerned because it says the pressure was on because the Waitangi Tribunal’s 2010 report proclaimed that the Maori language is dying out and “approaching a crisis point.” The reason is that at the grassroots level in the communities, strategies to save the language are failing. Statistics paint an alarming picture: in 2006, census data showed that less than a quarter of all Maori could hold an everyday conversation in Te Reo. The failure, the Tribunal concluded, did not lie in Maori ‘rejection of their language’ but rather in the government’s failure ‘to give it adequate oxygen and support’.
There are seven thousand languages in the world, and every two weeks, one of them dies. At this rate, it is estimated that about three thousand of them will be dead by the end of the century.
Why be concerned? This article answers that languages are life. Languages form our identities, our cultures and our histories. It’s a weird, intangible thing we just happened to learn when we were babies, something we often take for granted – ‘cause it just happens. It rolls off the tongue, reverbs from the vocal cords, or flows from the hands and body, if sign language or interpretive dancing is more your thing. Language gives us friends. It gives us humour, literature, entertainment. Without it, we wouldn’t have the Harry Potter books. We wouldn’t have ‘your mum’ jokes.
Maori have long recognised the importance of language. They have a proverb that describes this concept – ‘Ko te reo te ha te mauri o te Maoritanga’, language is the very life-blood of being Maori.
How did the risk to Maori language happen? The article says it took until 1987 for Maori language to even be recognized as an official language of New Zealand, and that only happened because Maori was on the brink of death. The 1867 Native Schools Act effectively banned Maori language from schools. Just as in American Indian boarding schools, Maori children were punished for speaking Maori in classrooms or playgrounds and, as a result, a generation was born that associated their native language with a sense of embarrassment and shame, or whakama.