Thursday, 15 December 2011

Learn another language, please!

Like many many Kiwis, I have spent a large % of my adult life overseas. And having done so, I can say that on the whole us flightless ones are well regarded and well respected. Good manners, a good work ethic, and a good level of general knowledge stand us in good sted wherever we travel.

But there is one thing that we really, really suck at. And that is dealing in other languages. Now I will state my vested interests here; I have a well blended wider family (te reo Pakeha, Maori, Japanese and German are all spoken in our whanau) and I run a translation business.

But on the whole, we don't do this well in NZ. Really, fellow Kiwis, can we really continue in this state of willful monolingualism in the 21st century?

Why is second language learning treated as such an "option" in our schools? Why do parents pay more attention to their kids geography test scores than their (insert language name) language scores?

Perhaps the greatest revelation that hit me, on learning a new language in my 20's, is that it is not just a language you learn, but a completely new base logic. A new way of looking at the world, a new way of approaching issues and of problem solving. Because language and culture are just reverse sides of the same coin, learning a new language (in depth, not just how to say "How are you, hope you have a nice day") gives you a whole new mental toolset, and a new understanding of how life actually works for people in different parts of the world.

This is perhaps the most important thing for NZ as a whole to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To be able to understand another way of thinking. To be able to "think outside of the box" by blending two different base cultural constructs and creating something new. Learning a new language gives you those tools.

And now, I guess will be the most controversial statement. I think te reo Maori should be the first second language every NZer should learn, right from day one of pre-school. And I can hear the bleaters saying "It has no economic value", "Why learn a language only spoken in NZ?", "English skills are bad enough as it is, another language will just reduce the kids English level" etc. etc.

Well I can think of lots of reasons.

1. It is unique. Just like Pakeha English (think of bach, crib, taiho, mate, bro etc. we have our own unique lexicon, a lot of it actually drawn from Maori). Tell me, mums and dads, do you want your kids growing up speaking like Americans? No, I didn't think so, you want them to maintain their Kiwi cultural identity. Well, Maori language and culture IS a big part of that, lets reinforce it.

2. For te reo Maori to survive, it has to move from the language of the marae to the language of the street. It should be used in every dairy, gas station and bank in the country, as a daily language. But it can't do that if it is only spoken by Maori people. It has to be all of us.

3. Pakeha NZ has an obligation to ensure that survival (why? Because Pakeha NZ tried to wipe it out!). How can we do that? By learning and speaking the language as part of our daily lives. My best Pommy mate always welcomes me with a healthy "Kiaora e hoa!". Why can't we all do that?

4. When my kids went to the te reo Maori unit at Richmond Road Primary, the scores on the English language tests from the kids in the Maori unit were actually better than the scores of the English only unit kids. Learning another language does not preclude or impede improving your ability in your first language, it actually improves your ability in your first language.

5. I have been in business negotiations overseas where, at the critical moment, it would have been ideal if I and my partners could communicate in a language that no one else in the room could understand. Just a "kei te pai" or a "kaore" would have sufficed, if they could have spoken Maori! Maori is that unique language; it should be the language we all share uniquely.

6. If we really want to be true partners, Maori and Pakeha, then it is about respect. If a Maori person can engage in conversation with me in English, then surely, out of simple respect, I shouldn't I make the effort to be able to reciprocate in te reo Maori? We pride ourselves on our egalitarian culture (although it has taken a hit over the last decade or so), yet it really is still one of our true strengths. Maybe, just maybe, if as many Pakeha learn te reo Maori as Maori learn English, then we can start talking to each other, rather than past each other.

That is not to say it precludes learning a third, fourth or more languages. I meet so many Dutch that manage 3 languages quite comfortably. Likewise I have Chinese clients who can speak Thai and Japanese as well as English. I once sat on a train in Japan with an Italian, a French, a Korean, a Japanese and me. We had the most wonderful poly-lingual conversation, each translating for the others as needs be.

Kiwis, get off yer bum and learn a new language, seriously. Make it Maori in the first case, and them add to it from there. You will be amazed as to how it lights up your awareness of different ways of doing things, different ways of problem solving, and just makes life in general more fulfilling.

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