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New Zealand Is Pushing to Save Its Vulnerable Indigenous Language

Each year, the country holds a week-long event to encourage people to speak te reo Māori.

This man has painted a moko, the traditional Māori facial tattoo, onto his face. It's just one example of a Māori custom fading from use.
This man has painted a moko, the traditional Māori facial tattoo, onto his face. It’s just one example of a Māori custom fading from use. Graham Crumb Imagicity.com/CC BY-SA 3.0

Kia ora! The expression, in New Zealand’s indigenous language, te reo Māori, means different things to different people in different contexts. It may mean “hello,” “thank you,” “goodbye,” “I agree,” or, to people very far away, a concentrated orange juice drink. For many New Zealanders, it’s the only te reo Māori they know. Perhaps because of that, it’s also the theme of this year’s Maori Language Week (Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori, that is), currently taking place in a country commonly thought of as home to The Lord of the Rings and a whole lot of sheep.

But te reo Māori, and New Zealand’s indigenous population, were there before either. When the British colonized the country in the 19th century, they brought English with them, and it became the most commonly spoken language nationwide. By the 1970s, te reo Māori was identified as being at risk. Māori parents who had been discouraged from using it when they had been in school were not passing it on to their children, and it began to fade from regular use. On top of that, people feared the language’s small vocabulary meant it would have difficulty adapting to modern usage. There are between about 10,000 and 20,000 te reo Māori words in common use, to English’s 140,000 or so. Words that don’t exist are often borrowed: “secretary,” for instance, becomes “hekeretari.”

People acted quickly to try to save the language. One of the first moves, in the mid-1980s, was the establishment of Kura kaupapa Māori—Māori-language immersion schools that serve children between five to 18, and where between 80 and 100 percent of classroom learning is done in Māori. Nearly 18,000 children are enrolled in Māori-language education. Following the introduction of a Māori Language Bill, in 1987, there are now two Māori television channels (one bilingual, one exclusively in te reo Māori) and 28 radio stations. It’s been used in films and albums, on restaurant menus and bathroom doors. Along with English and New Zealand sign language, it’s one of New Zealand’s three official languages, and more than 700 Māori words appear in New Zealand English language dictionaries. Even Google is on board, with its search engine and translation services available in Māori. A little fewer than 150,000 people speak it conversationally, while 55 percent of Māori adults report “some knowledge” of it. But despite all these efforts and official recognition, the language remains “vulnerable,” according to UNESCO.

In 2016, an updated Māori Language Bill acknowledged that the language was a taonga, or treasure, and took responsibility for past policies that had caused its decline. Part of that bill was a promise to protect and promote it—and Māori Language Week is just one part of that. For this week, which ends on Sunday, schools, libraries, broadcasters, and artists are releasing songs, making a particular effort to speak the language on air, and highlighting historic Māori-language resources. A celebratory parade of thousands took to the streets in the capital, Wellington. But the real question is whether the enthusiasm around the week can spill into the rest of the year. “Te Reo Māori Week should be an everyday event, not just for one week,” artist and activist Tame Iti told Radio New Zealand.

“We’ve got work to do, but also we’re in this amazing space now where we’ve got resources,” said Victoria University lecturer Vinni Olden-Reeder to Radio New Zealand, “we’ve got people [and] we’ve got all of this stuff in behind us to help us really make a good go of it.” For a country haunted by a history of extinction, this is one taonga worth the effort to save.