Learning te reo helps us improve our collective language capabilities

Simon Draper

12 Sep 2022

Simon Draper is executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.

OPINION: Ko tēnei Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2022. This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the Māori Language Petition, an event often seen as a turning point for the status of te reo Māori, which became an official language in 1987, with New Zealand Sign Language added in 2006.

Language, to me, is one of those foundational things. We don’t think about it too much, but it very much underpins who we are and the way we think.

Indeed, it’s only when you try to learn another language that you realise just how important language is.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like there has been a profound shift in New Zealand in recent years – with increasing use of te reo not only by institutions like the media, government and politicians, but also by individuals, particularly young people.

I have to declare my bias – from a monolingual New Zealander until my early 20s, I am now a convert and zealot of the value of trying to learn other languages.

It’s one of the most satisfying and rewarding things I have ever done, even though I remain an enthusiastic amateur at best.

More New Zealanders learning te reo is, in my view, a good thing, not only because it protects a taonga and helps us better understand our own country, but also because it improves New Zealand’s collective language capabilities, and therefore, ability to engage out there in the wider world.

It’s hard to do international relations well if we don’t know ourselves.

The sad fact is, most New Zealanders have managed to get through our lives speaking one language because the dominant cultures internationally have been English-speaking ones. It’s a blessing and a curse – it’s allowed us to be cosy in our monolingualism.

But that was in the past. As we look ahead, English alone isn’t going to be enough for New Zealand to navigate its way in the world. It isn’t even enough now.

Over the past few weeks, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has been holding a series of hui in different New Zealand cities for our “Seriously Asia Revisited” project.

These have looked out how New Zealand and Asia have changed in the past two decades, and what might be needed in the decades ahead.

They cover a variety of themes: society and culture; politics and security; trade, tourism and investment; sustainable development and innovation.

At every hui, a lack of Asia-related capabilities and language skills have been referenced as a deficit in New Zealand’s capacity to engage internationally. And these skills are seen as valuable not only for diplomats and linguists, but also for economists, business owners, scientists, and people working in the media.
In research the Asia New Zealand Foundation conducted last year on South Island business links to Asia, a lack of language capability was described by businesses surveyed as one of the biggest challenges they faced in establishing links to Asia.

One might argue that you can bluster your way through business interactions in English, as the dominant international language, with the support of interpreters or language apps.

But the fact is, you will miss nuances, and you won’t look particularly sophisticated when up against others with language prowess, as multilingualism is the norm in much of the world. Even a little goes a long way.

And while it might not overtake English, Mandarin Chinese is projected to grow in the international “language power” in the decades ahead, as are other Asian languages like Hindi.

So, what needs to be done to prepare New Zealanders for the future?

A bill to strengthen language learning in schools went to select committee last year, but didn’t pass its second reading. That bill would have seen the Government create a national languages policy and identify at least 10 priority languages.

I was disappointed by the lack of interest shown in the bill by the business community.

As it stands, then, a structured way forward remains unclear. Perhaps what that leaves us with is a need to champion the use of non-English languages as much as we can, recognising that they’re an asset to New Zealanders who have them (and to the country as a whole) and helping to drive demand among those who don’t.

Kudos here to the organisers of language weeks and initiatives like Te Papa’s Voices of Asian Aotearoa project, which is helping celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation is a sponsor of New Zealand Chinese Language Week, which begins later this month, on September 25.

We support this event because we know language is an important way to open up windows into other cultures, and Mandarin Chinese is only set to grow in importance internationally.

Our Perceptions of Asia research tells us interest in learning Chinese is high in New Zealand.

But back to te reo – a highly enjoyable way to dip your toes into a new language if you haven’t had the opportunity so far.

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori is not only a good thing domestically – although that’s of course important in its own right.

Learning te reo helps New Zealand embrace a language diverse society, which can only be a good thing out there in the wider world. Kia Kaha te Reo Māori!