‘Kia Kaha te Reo Maori’

Briar Lipson
Insights Newsletter
13 September, 2019

Monday saw Wellington’s Lambton Quay come alive with a joyful parade celebrating Māori Language Week.

Yet, when asked whether her government would make te Reo compulsory in schools Prime Minister Ardern dodged the question, explaining instead that even if the government wanted to do this, New Zealand lacks the necessary teaching workforce.

Her argument makes sense, at least in the short-term. But there are other, more long-term reasons why compulsion might not be right.

Take the experience of Wales, where I grew up, as an example. There, compulsory Welsh was phased in for all children aged 5–14 from 1990. This compulsion widened to age 16 in 1999, and age 3 in 2011.

As a result, most adults in Wales aged 34 and younger have learned Welsh for up to 11 years. However, it is not clear from census statistics that compulsion is working.

In each census year 1991, 2001 and 2011, the same proportion, just 15%, of 20- to 44-year-olds reported being able to speak Welsh. This was even though by 2001 some, and by 2011 significantly more, of this age bracket had experienced compulsory Welsh.

Part of the explanation seems to be that despite learning Welsh from age 5, too few students develop confidence,and amongst those who do, skills drop dramatically over time. In 2011, despite 5+ years of study only 42% of 10- to 14-year-olds reported being able to speak Welsh, and amongst those ten years older the proportion fell to just one in five.

As the then Welsh Education Minister acknowledged, despite their years of compulsory study, too few school leavers feel confident and able to use the language beyond school.

Various reasons will explain why, but one stems directly from Welsh’s compulsory status. Overnight, it turned a language people fought for into an obligation. While a voluntary approach can harness parental support, compulsion can undermine it.

Interestingly, without any compulsion, the number of students enrolled in Māori language courses in New Zealand tertiary institutions increased by 34% between 2009 and 2018, and 86% of these students are over 25. 

Balancing compulsion and flexibility is a perpetual challenge. At the Initiative, we believe our national curriculum is too flexible. However, Monday’s joyous parade, evidence from Wales, and the healthy figures on voluntary uptake of te Reo all point to letting Māori language grow organically.

That can happen only when the politicians stay out and continue letting parents and school boards decide.

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