[This article was first published in the Spinoff Ātea on 18 October 2017]
Ni hao! It’s Chinese Language Week. There has been some attempt in our local media to wrap their lips around the unfamiliar sounds of Mandarin, a few pieces about the local Chinese community, but mostly pieces about the importance of business with China promoting the idea that learning Mandarin makes economic sense.
New Zealand’s monolingualism means most New Zealanders often only conceive of languages as having value as an economic asset, rather than a cultural asset. If you’ve learned te reo Māori, you know the drill: “What’s the point in learning that language?”
“Can it get you a job?”
“It’s not even any use overseas.”
It was a trip to France that gave me pause to reflect on the poverty of that view and posit an alternative that is relevant this week: perhaps we should learn Mandarin because it is an insight into one of the great and enduring cultures and empires of our world?
Before my wife and I left for France last year, I spent the start of the year doing French classes here in Tauranga Moana to revitalise what remained of the language from my school years – some grammar, some basic sentence structures and an accent largely borrowed from Peter Sellers.
Surprisingly, those basics, the wonderful classes here and the confidence of having already learned a second language meant that most of my functional interactions in France were conducted in French. The effort was welcomed and we were treated warmly our entire trip. My epiphany came at a dinner party at our friend David’s house in Paris. Among nine guests, five languages were spoken: Portuguese, Spanish, French, English and Māori. At different points in the evening, it was not strange to find myself in a three-way conversation with someone who spoke neither English nor French, where I spoke neither Spanish nor Portuguese, but our interpreter spoke all of the languages except Māori.
My realisation was threefold: firstly, that this multilingualism is normal. Our monolingualism is the outlier. When we are monolingual, the tendency is to engage in the world community with an assumption that people should be able to speak English, that English is a superior language of interaction and that English has sufficient terms to explain everything that we might encounter in the world. Actually Mandarin and Spanish are languages spoken by the most people. The most popular language of trade is Spanish. There are terms in every language that cannot be expressed in English.
Secondly, that many people speak a few languages because they love to explore other cultures – not necessarily as a revolutionary act. I realised that the consequence of 130 years of active suppression of the Māori language is that all of us in Aotearoa New Zealand understand to some extent that learning te reo Māori is a political act; we may feel threatened by te reo or embrace te reo, but none of us are neutral on the subject. Don’t mistake me here: there’s plenty of politics in learning and using other languages throughout the world, but my revelation was that it is not always the case. Sometimes people learn languages just because they are beautiful and interesting.
Which led me to the conclusion: we can’t save te reo Māori if the primary reason we learn and teach it is the fight to save it or as a revolt against the Crown. There aren’t enough revolutionaries in Māori communities let alone New Zealand to do that. As much as can be achieved, we need to ensure we don’t unnecessarily burden te reo Māori with the challenges of our race relations. There is a place for encouraging people, even our tamariki Māori to learn te reo Māori just because it is beautiful and unique and learning a second language means you can more fully be a world citizen.
I’d happily have every child in Aotearoa New Zealand schools learn Mandarin alongside te reo Māori as core subjects in our curriculum. It’s good for their brain health, it’s good for their tolerance of other cultures. Learning a new language helps you have the skills to learn other languages and we are geographically an Asia Pacific country. But if the primary motivation in our community and in our government would be to make our children better widgets in the business relationship with China? Kāhore, pōuri atu!