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Professor Paul Moon

Killing Te Reo Maori – Extracts by Professor Paul Moon

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Decades of pronouncements, proposals, plans, policies, and programmes aimed at reviving Te Reo Māori (the Māori language), have acted like an accumulation of grime on the edifice of the language. These accretions need to be cleared away, layer by layer, to get a more detailed impression of the state of the language and thereafter, understand its prospects for survival – if indeed there are any. And ‘survival’ is an apt term. If Te Reo Māori was a person, its condition would one of a patient on life-support. Its pulse beats weakly, its other vital signs still appear to indicate that there is (faint) cause for hope, but linguistic atrophy is spreading from the extremities to the core, and the entire body is only being given the semblance of life by a large and cumbersome academic and bureaucratic apparatus, which keeps the essential functions working, but little more. The fact that only a handful of academics are prepared to confront the possibility that Te Reo Māori may cease to be a living language[i] altogether within just two generations (the prospect very seldom appears in print) is in itself suggestive of how opaque or unrealistic so many assessments of Te Reo Māori have become in recent years.

Much of the material that addresses the near-terminal state of Te Reo Māori seems to descend at moments into something almost liturgical. References to the language itself are reverential and devotional, with an emphasis on the unquestioned sanctity of Te Reo Māori; there is the well-worn narrative of a long struggle over obstacles to ensure Te Reo Māori’s survival; and at the end, by adhering to whatever incarnation of the tenets of revitalisation are being preached, there is the promise of redemption. Maybe such approaches would be slightly more bearable if there were not so heavily draped in self-adulatory tones. Many of schemes devised to pull back Te Reo Māori from the precipice of extinction are accompanied by the confidence that they (and implicitly, largely they alone) will achieve what all before have failed to do. And when they eventually and inevitably join the pile of plans that have fallen short of the expectations they raised, they are effortlessly supplanted by others (and become part of the pool of references for new studies).

The number of reports, papers, theses, and other analyses that tackle the question of how to revitalise Te Reo Māori is difficult to calculate, especially as many are for internal use by smaller organisations, and are never published. A quick search of just one archive threw up almost a hundred specimens having been released between 1986 and 2016. Among these were literature reviews, workshop findings, inquiries, surveys, assessments of pilot schemes, studies, strategies, conference proceedings, working papers, theses, dissertations, research projects, and so forth.  What unites many of these undertakings – aside from their admirable ambition to save Te Reo Māori – is the confident conviction that the language’s decline can be reversed through a combination of measures that seem to repeat perennially, irrespective of how effective they are.[ii] A few examples are sufficient to give a taste of this default position. A United Nations commentary on the 2010 Māori Language Week reported that ‘mainstream New Zealand has also joined in and it is now commonplace to hear Maori on radio and television. Businesses, schools, universities, government departments, community groups and even engineers in communities throughout the country came together to celebrate te reo Maori this year’.[iii] The same year, an education lecturer at the University of Auckland looked back on the struggle the language has faced in the preceding decades in particular, and concluded that ‘[m]any of our hopes and dreams for the survival of the Māori language have come to fruition, just as we visualised that it could happen’.[iv] And the future for Te Reo Māori is even more sanguine, according to one Māori-language teacher, who pronounced that ‘[t]he Maori language is on the mend and securing a future with the next generation….I do strongly think that with the up-and-coming generation it (the language) is only going to thrive’.[v] Anyone unfamiliar with the state of the language who read such comments could be forgiven for believing that a revival in Te Reo Māori was already under way.

The approach of this work is intended to serve as an antidote to such unalloyed optimism – not because there is anything inherently wrong with hopefulness, but because such attitudes have become something of a fetish in the literature dealing with the revitalisation of Te Reo Māori. These types of assurances have tended to come at the expense of a more realistic appreciation both of how dire the state of Te Reo Māori is, and the precise character and scale of the threats it faces.

The problem is not restricted to Te Reo Māori. The international field of language revitalisation is saturated with research offering the promise of revival, revitalisation, and even ‘regenesis’,[vi] with buoyant case studies testifying to one technique or another that will supposedly lead to the long-anticipated breakthrough. Yet, draw the lens back to get a broader view, and it is evident that none of the vaunted schemes or programmes for revitalisation has managed to arrest the decline of the languages in question. Instead, they tend to function like a linguistic King Cnut, vainly hoping to defy the tide of extinction.

When looking at the industry of language revitalisation in New Zealand, there is a sense that parts of it have become self-perpetuating. To reiterate the value of Te Reo Māori and propose methods of preserving the language have become ends in themselves. As the patient slowly (and now, not so slowly) slips away, the revitalisationists appear on the scene like snake-oil salesmen (and women) – anxious that ‘something must be done’, and convinced that their research is that required tonic. It is as though precisely at the point where the crisis seems imminent, they revert to the tried and tired tropes that have yet to produce any successes in halting Te Reo Māori’s decline. Perhaps the comparison is too unkind, but if Te Reo Māori was to cease being a living language, it is possible to envisage language revivalists still scurrying around, committed to their research and schemes – like the apocryphal cockroaches surviving a nuclear war and clambering over the rubble of their annihilated world.

One of the arguments that is hauled out whenever an initiative to promote Te Reo Māori is announced is that while it may not revive the language single-handedly, it will serve as a measure that together with other initiatives will contribute to Te Reo Māori’s revitalisation. It is the sort of caveat that protects the reputation of the initiative’s promotors while still maintaining the promise that a turn-around in the language’s downhill trajectory is possible. However, if each individual initiative for revitalising the language fails in that goal on its own, it would take a considerable leap of faith to believe that grouping several failed initiatives together will somehow achieve anything other than a cluster of failures. In practice, this has meant that increasingly, measures that have promised to revive the language have ended up looking more like salvage exercises as they fail to arrest Te Reo Māori’s decline. Despite the best efforts of language revitalisationists over the past half century, Te Reo Māori now more than ever faces the risk of becoming like Latin: ‘a language without a people’.[vii]  

Although precise instruments of measurement are not currently applied when surveying the number of Te Reo Māori speakers nationwide, the statistics that are produced show the language to be in decline – a picture that is made worse by the possibility that the number of fluent Te Reo Māori speakers is lower than the official figures indicate. Allied to these numerical challenges is the percentage of those fluent in Te Reo Māori who are second-language speakers. The dearth of native speakers potentially jeopardises the language as much as the overall decline in people who are fluent in Te Reo Māori. Again, Latin serves as a warning here, as it is not anyone’s native language, and consequently is classified as a dead language,[viii] even though it has speakers in every continent. The challenge for Te Reo Māori is whether it can survive as a living language if the overwhelming majority of those who are fluent in it use it only as a second language.

Some of the smaller-scale initiatives to halt Te Reo Māori’s decline that have sprouted up in the past few decades seem to have been conceived in an environment where there is little elementary understanding of how languages function, and what motivates people to acquire (or, for that matter, abandon) them. Campaigns urging people to learn Te Reo Māori on the basis that it is a ‘beautiful language’ are at once superficial, ineffective and ignorant on the central issue of what motivates people to acquire a second language. Likewise, while it is true that Te Reo Māori is a taonga and an indigenous language, these assertions cannot form the basis of encouraging people to learn the language in sufficient number to revive it, because to draw on such arguments is to concede that the ‘natural’ transmission mechanisms of the language have broken down and cannot otherwise be repaired. The experience of attempts at second-language revival in other parts of the world (as well as in New Zealand) shows consistently that valuing a language for cultural, religious, or traditional reasons will not lead to significantly more people speaking it.

When the appeals to the language being a taonga and indigenous fail to encourage some people to learn Te Reo Māori, the argument that the language is important to one’s identity as Māori is sometimes hauled out as an alternate form of emotional leverage. The motive might be laudable, but the morality of toying with people’s sense of identity as a means of reversing language-decline is questionable, especially when the method fails to achieve its objective.

Of all the techniques that have been experimented with or proposed in the increasingly desperate struggle to revive Te Reo Māori, none is more ineffective than the call for the language to be made compulsory in schools. Compulsion has failed to revive indigenous languages in every territory where it has been implemented, including places where the indigenous language belongs to the majority culture of the area. What is surprising about this repeatedly-advocated ‘solution’ to the slow collapse of Te Reo Māori is that it is finding increasing popular favour in spite of the overwhelming evidence of its complete failure to achieve its desired objective. This speaks of an environment of language revitalisation where desperation and ignorance have become close bedfellows in discussions about saving Te Reo Māori.

Killing Te Reo Māori: An Indigenous Language Facing Extinction (Campus Press, 2018, ISBN 978-0-9941192-6-1) is available exclusively through Unity Books HERE.


[i]         In this context, a living language is one that is the instinctive form of spoken interaction between speakers of the language. For related dimensions relevant to this definition, see J. V. Canfield, ‘The living language: Wittgenstein and the empirical study of communication’, in Language Sciences, vol. 15, no. 3, 1993, pp. 165-193; R. L. Paulsen, ‘Native literacy: A living language’, in Canadian Journal of Native Education, vol. 27, no. 1, 2003, pp. 23ff; B. Spolsky, ‘Maori bilingual education and language revitalisation’, in Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, vol. 10, no. 2, 1989, pp. 89-106; M. Warschauer, ‘Technology and indigenous language revitalization: Analyzing the experience of Hawai’i’, in Canadian Modern Language Review, vol. 55, no. 1, 1998, pp. 139-159; R. Nicholson and R. Garland, ‘New Zealanders’ attitudes to the revitalisation of the Maori language’, in Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, vol. 12, no. 5, 1991, pp. 393-410.

[ii]        The issue of ‘unwarranted claims of recent success’ is addressed in M. Stephens, ‘Taonga, rights and interests: Some observations on WAI 262 and the framework of protections for the Maori language’, in Victoria University Wellington Law Review, vol. 42, 2011, p. 242.

[iii]       B. Gould, ‘Maori Language Week – A success that all New Zealanders can share in’, in New Zealand National Commission of UNESCO, Newsletter, 3 August 2010.

[iv]       J. McCaffery, in Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, ‘Revitalising Te Reo Māori – a language activist reflects on how far we have come’, 27 July 2010.

[v]        S. Glassie, in T. Shaskey, ‘Maori Language Revival ‘On The Mend’’, in Taranaki Daily News, 3 July 2013.

[vi]       C. B. Paulston, P. C. Chen, and M. C. Connerty, ‘Language regenesis: A conceptual overview of language revival, revitalisation and reversal’, in Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, vol. 14, no. 4, 1993, pp. 275 ff.

[vii]      E. Löfstedt, Late Latin, Oslo, 1959, p. 61.

[viii]      Some linguists dispute the extent to which Latin is dead, but it does not function like a living language. See W. R. Parker, ‘The case for Latin’, in The Classical Journal, vol. 60, no. 1, 1964, pp. 1-10.