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Why are Maori not speaking Maori anymore?

Leroy Crawford



I approached Winifred Bauer, a prominent New Zealand linguist and an expert in the grammar of the Maori language, and asked her to answer this very question. I also asked her if it was fair to say that, Legislation and continued attacks at Te Reo have lead to the near extinction of our taonga tuku iho… our language.”
Here is her response:
The story of the decline of Maori is complex, and not easily packed into a few words, but the most significant factors were these:
(i) Government language education policies
The Native School Act 1867 decreed that English should be the medium of instruction in these schools, and from 1903, when William Bird introduced the “direct method”, Maori was banned from both classrooms and playgrounds. In many schools, this was enforced by the punishment of children speaking Maori. New entrants came speaking only Maori. They were immersed in a language they did not understand from day one, a bewildering, frightening experience. If older children spoke Maori to them to help them in their distress, those children were punished. A small child would take from this that there was something wrong” with their language: speaking Maori was bad, like fighting or stealing. When these children became parents there were two down-stream effects of these educational experiences: firstly, they did not wish their own children to suffer as they had, and that lead to them using English to their children before they started school.
(ii) Poverty
Land loss deprived many Maori people of the means of continuing their traditional subsistence lifestyle. It also deprived them of the possibility of participating in the new money economy by growing food to trade. Education policy deliberately trained them to be servants to the Europeans: there is clear evidence that they were taught practical, not academic skills, because politicians decreed that Maori people were not fit for anything better. Te Aute lost government scholarship funding because the Principal, John Thornton, persisted in training his best students for university, against the government directive that they should be taught agriculture and other “practical” skills. Education policy thus forced Maori people into lower-paid occupations.
Maori people forced into poverty and seeking a way up were faced with enormous economic pressure to acquire English, which by this time was the dominant language in all workplaces. Poverty thus contributed to the abandonment of Maori in favour of English.
(iii) Breakdown of traditional communities
Languages live because they are spoken in a community. All around the world, languages are being lost at an alarming rate because the communities that speak them are disrupted. (Andrew Dalby estimated in 2002 that there were about 6000 languages in the world, that they are disappearing at the rate of about one every two weeks, and that by the end of the next century, there will be only about 200 left in the world.) Land loss led to the disruption of Maori communities. The Manpower Act of WWII forced Maori people to leave their traditional communities, and move to cities. There, government had a policy of “pepperpotting”: dotting Maori people amongst Pakeha, to prevent them from forming new Maori communities there, and in the hope that Pakeha pressure would force Maori people to adopt pakeha ways of living.
(iv) Absence from high profile domains
Languages draw their status from the domains in which they are used. Languages used for governance, education, public media are given a high status by being used for those purposes. When Englishspeakers became more numerous than Maori speakers (through English migration and Maori population loss principally through war and disease, both precipitated by the immigration), Maori ceased to be used for these high status domains. English became the exclusive language of government (officials no longer bothered to learn Maori), of education, and of the media (both written and broadcast). The dominance of English forced Maori into the position of a low status language, which in turn reinforced the negative attitudes acquired from education policy.
The fate of a language is tied to the fate of its speakers. The decline of Maori can be attributed to the effects of a series of legislative decisions, which affected the economic position of Maori people. That same low economic position also explains why, for the most part, the revitalisation initiatives have had the greatest uptake amongst the better off Maori population, and hence only a small proportion of the Maori population.
Acquiring a high level of proficiency in a second language is hard and timeconsuming work. Motivation is crucial for success. Rewards are an important factor in providing motivation. The rewards for learning a language are being able to understand it when you meet it, being able to access information and experiences that would otherwise be denied you. The continued absence of Maori from New Zealand because of the dominance of English means that the rewards for the effort of learning Maori are still relatively small. The rewards for English are huge. Small wonder that Maori still faces an uphill battle.
A further reason that people have difficulty finding occasions to speak Maori is that non-Maori speakers generally feel that it is rude of others to speak Maori in their presence, because they don’t understand it. Because such a small proportion of the population speaks Maori (around 20% of the Maori population, if we go down to ‘fairly well’ as the level of proficiency; only 9% if we go down to ‘well’ – and that means a much smaller proportion of the total population), it is rarely the case that a group consists solely of proficient speakers of Maori. In all these cases, those who can speak Maori feel constrained to speak English. Andrew Feltoe, who wrote the article ‘Rich white men have guns, want land’ in the last issue of Salient is a case in point. Here he is objecting to Maori people using Maori in a forum where not all the participants ( i.e. readers of Salient) speak Maori. So he is a typical example of the problem: his reaction to being confronted with Maori is to say “speak English because I am here”, and then to say “All you have to do to preserve Maori is to speak it”.