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“But I don’t want to learn Maori!” New Zealand’s bi-cultural and bi-lingual dilemma


“They are always shoving that Maori shit down our throats!”

“Maori isn’t useful for me because I can only speak it in NZ.”

“This is New Zealand and we should speak ENGLISH.”

-said some Pakeha people


Memories of hearing these sentiments came back to me thick and fast while reading an academic paper on non-Maori’s interest in studying the Maori language.  Apparently there were a group in the survey that associated as “English only”. That didn’t surprise me. I’ve been away from New Zealand for five years and  if I ever want to remind myself of how far NZ hasn’t come I merely need to have a quick look at the stuff comments on an article to do with Maori language (or not, you know how the comments section works).  It seems that some Kiwis are not very keen on learning, or even hearing the Maori language in their daily lives.  What’s up with that?


Language remains a key part of being a human being, we are the only species so far that have managed to create a way of communicating that is so utterly complex and yet simple enough that we can learn multiple languages if we try.  For Aotearoa and our bi-cultural heritage, language remains at the core of many issues we have faced and are still grappling with today.


I see three statements come up again and again as reasons why we shouldn’t learn even a little of the Maori language. So, what’s up with all this angry fist-shaking*?


*Usually done from behind the safety of a computer monitor or in groups that don’t include a Maori person.


Let’s have ourselves a wee think about it.


 1.Maori is not worth learning.


When people lament at how Maori language is sooooooo not worth studing because it can only be spoken here in New Zealand they usually say they want to learn Chinese, French or Spanish because it’s way more useful and could lead to jobs etc.  Bet you five bucks the people who say this have never managed to learn a second language.  At least in my opinion the most successful cases of language learning occur when the individual is really interested in the culture connected to the language. The desire to communicate with someone is the match that lights the fire of language learning, not how useful a language is to us economically or how many people we can talk to.  We should stop saying Maori is useless to learn because learning another language PERIOD is beneficial to us as human beings.  We can connect with another culture, we learn about humility and perseverance and our brains are less likely to get Alzheimers. Language learning is a labour of love, so please get your “most useful language” rhetoric out of here.  Seriously.




2. In New Zealand we speak ENGLISH. 


I know those “English only” folks, they give the Chinese tourists the side eye, look highly unimpressed when they have to attend a Powhiri, they think New Zealand is an English speaking country and it should remain that way.  NZ likes to think that these people don’t exist, but I do. I’ve met a fair few of them.  The concept of an “English only” New Zealand, or at least a lack of tolerance for other languages, is connected to our history. Ah colonialism, you always know how to ruin everything.





~ Colonialism Explained ~


Colonialism is when you turn up to some other country and start living there because basically you think you’re better than everyone else.  If you’re better, more intelligent, more refined than the peeps who already live there then you totes have rights to their stuff.  That weird “dialect” they are always talking in is waaaaay not cool, your language is so much better and your culture made like books and shit so they should just come to your school and learn your history and be exactly like you. Duh.



That ideology filters through to the present in the way we think about languages in NZ. When people say they don’t want to learn Maori and NZ is an English speaking country they are re-enacting our colonial past. That aversion to other languages besides English is basically their way of saying “my language is superior to your language, please take your barbarian jibber-jabber away”.  Nobody wants to say this directly so they argue that NZ is an English speaking country because that’s how it’s always been! But really, it’s colonialism 2.0 hiding behind “logic” and “fairness”.


Or maybe, if I’m being a little kinder, it is also the fear of not understanding that also drives this way of thinking. We use language to communicate everyday and then suddenly when we can’t understand something it makes us afraid, so we get angry.  Regardless of where this attitude comes from it springs from a place which is rarely ever analyzed by the speaker. So if you feel this way about Maori (or any other language) please think more deeply about it, do you really want be this blatantly scared and racist at the same time? It’s not fun for anyone involved.


3. I don’t want to learn Maori! I didn’t have anything to do with that whole history thing.


I think many Pakeha (in this case NZ Europeans) conveniently forget that what happened in the past is not in some self-contained bubble; it affects us today too.  Yes, I can hear it now “but I didn’t do this, my ancestors did!  I don’t want to be blamed for something that happened 200 years ago!”  Yes, it happened and you didn’t do it personally but it needs to be made right. So let’s go back to our past and remind ourselves about what actually happened.  Students were banned from speaking Maori in the classroom (Native Schools Act 1867) and in general speaking Maori was discouraged in places of business and education.  During the urbanization of Maori after WWII many Maori families were placed in non-Maori suburbs because the government really wanted them to assimilate and that meant they should speak English, not Maori.  We as a nation did these things on purpose to get rid the Maori language.  This had been proven an excellent way to assimilate the indigenous populations of other colonies as well. Trying to destroy a language means the culture will surely go with it.


Language is connected to art, craft, belief systems, knowledge about the surrounding land and plant life.  It tells us so much about a people, the way they name things, the way they address each other.  It is the most precious thing we have.


When the Maori Language Act came through in 1987 (thanks to the tireless effort of the Maori protest movement) it was the beginning of the New Zealand government trying to un-do what it had done in the past to the Maori Language.


I don’t think anyone is blaming you directly for what happened to the Maori language, just as no-one is screaming at you on the street for single handedly ruining the environment. But people will blame you if you refuse to acknowledge the situation and resist change at every turn.


Now, let’s imagine for a second.


Has anyone in New Zealand told you to stop speaking English? Has a teacher shouted at you when you spoke your mother tongue in the classroom? Have you ever felt English was “less than” and not worth learning?  No, you fucking well haven’t.  We as Pakeha have literally NO IDEA what this feels like.  We have lived a blessed life when it comes to language and culture, everyone is trying to learn English and everyone wants to come to Native English speaking countries.  We don’t know what it’s like to almost lose something as precious as our means of communication.



Maori language is something that all New Zealanders should cherish; it is Taonga, a precious and special thing that we must maintain and take care of.  It is my hope that people will start seeing how important it is to let other languages thrive, to not buy into the idea that it’s better to be a monolingual nation because it’s more comfortable for the majority.  Our past wrong-doings must be addressed and one of the ways is through learning (or at least tolerating for you super-angry folks) the Maori language.  We should see it as something to be proud of, that we speak Maori here and it makes our country wonderfully unique.  English is everywhere but Maori belongs to Aotearoa.

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  1. C. Murdock says:

    One of the reasons I enjoy that some schools in the US are starting to teach languages that are local (would’ve loved to learn athabasque or inuit) because dear me my country needs some brain expansion sometimes XD

    1. T says:

      I just finished watched a doco last night called “White People” and they focused on a couple of people who were white and teaching on an Indian reservation. All of them had never considered how terrible the oppression of the Native Americans was until they taught there. Brain expansion and being taken out of your comfort zone is necessary I think.

      I’ve been reading a lot about reverse language shift (trying to bring languages back) lately and so many individual people tried REALLY hard to make sure their languages survived. In some places like in California they have this cool system called the Master-Apprentice language program where you basically spend blocks of time with a native speaker of an endangered language and do stuff together. It really works! Makes me think about how we teach languages in the classroom.

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