Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English was able to begin his speeches on marae by speaking in fluent Māori, without notes, for about five minutes.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cannot have a conversation in te reo Māori, but is “leaning heavily” on Scotty Morrison’s books to improve her skills. Corrections and Crown/Māori Relations Minister Kelvin Davis can hold a conversation in te reo, but doesn’t describe himself as fluent. “As a second-language learner, I miss some nuances – that’s a difference between a competent speaker and a native speaker.”
Davis is not alone in his diffidence. Minister Willie Jackson learnt te reo at school and from his father but not, he says, to a level of fluency. As an adult, he made a commitment to develop it further so he could raise his children as Māori speakers and, as a Māori broadcaster, “be a champion of the language”.
Ministers Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare both grew up speaking te reo, but, says Henare, it’s still important to keep learning new words, new idioms.
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson learnt the language as an adult. Her grandmother was a native speaker, but “had the language literally beaten out of her”. Today, Davidson can hold a conversation in te reo, but does not consider herself fluent. “I consider myself a beginner. I always cringe listening back to my reo in the media and hearing the mistakes, but I’m also learning and getting better every day.”
Co-leader James Shaw can’t hold a conversation in te reo, but tries to incorporate the language in his speeches and is focusing, he says, on improving his pronunciation.
Winston Peters didn’t wish to comment, but NZ First deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau says, although he can’t have a conversation in te reo, he can understand “about 60%” of what is spoken by his elders. “I need and want to do a full immersion … It’s who I am, the language is part of who we are.”
National Party leader Simon Bridges declined to comment, but earlier this year told TVNZ he had tried to learn about four or five times and would love to have that skill: “Maybe one day that’ll be something I’ll pick up.” His deputy, Paula Bennett, isn’t learning, and isn’t planning to learn, “but I am happy to see that more people are embracing and learning te reo”.
Act leader David Seymour took up lessons last year, but the election campaign “wiped them out”. As part of his background is Ngāpuhi, he says, “it would be nice to speak a language of some of my ancestors”.
How other countries are moving to save their languages
By the end of this century, more than half of the world’s 7000 languages are expected to become extinct. According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, nearly 30 language families have disappeared since 1960. On average, a language dies every four months.
But languages have been saved from extinction. Although most of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia have “gone to sleep”, according to one native speaker, indigenous languages have now been introduced to the New South Wales school curriculum and are increasingly being offered at tertiary level.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed his Government to a new Indigenous Languages Act to ensure the preservation, protection and revitalisation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages.
After nearly a century of being banned in public schools, the Hawaiian language is being taught at 19 language-immersion sites around the American state. Cornish, the language of the southwestern tip of England, is one of nine languages listed by Ethnologue reference guide to the world’s languages as “reawakening”.
Hebrew, although long used as a language of prayer, literature, commerce and scholarship, was not spoken as an everyday tongue for some 2000 years until revived by eager Zionists more than a century ago.
This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.