Hey, Kiwis: Why not learn another language?

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most of us Kiwis could say we speak a little Māori. We greet one another with ‘kia ora’ or ‘mōrena’. We’ll pepper our conversations with ka pai, aroha, and whānau.

But that’s usually about where it ends.

New Zealand has three official languages: English, te reo Māori, and Sign Language. However, the majority of us are fluent only in one language: English. And there are fears that less-spoken languages - te reo included - are on the brink of extinction.

New Zealand has traditionally been a country of several languages. Early immigrants from Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands brought their mother tongues with them.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most of us Kiwis could say we speak a little Māori. We greet one another with ‘kia ora’ or ‘mōrena’. We’ll pepper our conversations with ka pai, aroha, and whānau.

But that’s usually about where it ends.

New Zealand has three official languages: English, te reo Māori, and Sign Language. However, the majority of us are fluent only in one language: English. And there are fears that less-spoken languages – te reo included – are on the brink of extinction.

New Zealand has traditionally been a country of several languages. Early immigrants from Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands brought their mother tongues with them.

Today, New Zealand is a highly diverse society with more ethnicities than there are countries in the world. There are an estimated 190 languages being spoken around us every day, from Mandarin and Hindi right down to Tokelau and Danish. Thirty-seven of those languages are spoken by just 0.1% of the population.

According to the 2018 Census, around 95.4% of the population speaks fluent English.

The next most spoken language is te reo Māori: but the estimated number of those able to hold a general conversation is only four percent. These figures don’t reflect our ethnic diversity. Although 70.2% of our population identifies as being of European descent, Māori make up 16.5%.

Just over two percent of the popular speak Samoan, while 3.9% of Kiwis identify as Samoan.

Northern Chinese (including Mandarin) is spoken by around two percent of the population. Many other Chinese languages are also spoken, including Yue (which includes Cantonese) and a Sino-Tibetan language. Around 1.48% of New Zealanders speak Hindi. Again, these figures don’t quite match up with the 15% of Kiwis who identify as belonging to an Asian ethnic group, including Chinese (5.3%), Indian (5.1%), and Southeast Asian (2.7%).

Those who are multilingual in New Zealand are generally those who are first- and second-generation migrants. It’s estimated that 20.6% of those living in New Zealand can speak two or more languages. These people are generally concentrated in the cities, with 30.9% living in Auckland and 21.2% living in Wellington.

In a country of so many languages and ethnicities, why do most of us speak only English?

The reign of the English language

English, of course, is the universal language. It is the second-most spoken language worldwide and is used for most communication sources and information: films, brands, TV shows, music, and books. English is also the ‘language of business’: foreign companies will generally use English to communicate with one another, regardless of their own native tongue. Most people who grow up speaking English as their native tongue cannot speak any other languages.

Internationally, however, bilingualism or multilingualism is the norm. An estimated 70-80% of the world’s speakers can speak two or more languages. In other words, those who grow up speaking anything other than English are likely to know a few other languages as well.

Sadly, more than a third of the world’s languages are currently classified as endangered. Although many countries have implemented strategies to revitalize these languages, this hasn’t always been successful. More than half of endangered languages are expected to be extinct by 2100.

Te reo Māori is one of those languages.

The 2013 survey Te Kupenga undertaken by Statistics NZ suggests that around 11% of Māori adults can speak Māori well or very well. Unfortunately, most fluent speakers of Māori are likely to be over 65 years old, which is making it increasingly difficult for younger generations to pick it up. With so few speakers, the chances of the language ‘dying out’ is now a very real possibility.

In fact, the language has been declining steadily throughout the 20th century. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the number of Māori who could speak their native language fell from 96.6% to only 26%. Unsurprisingly, an entire generation grew up unable to speak Māori. This led to fears that Māori would fade away altogether unless serious efforts were made to revive the language and encourage more people to speak it again.

In the 1980s, the first efforts to revive our national language began with the implementation of te reo Māori schooling (known as Māori-medium education). Last year, the Labour Government announced an even more ambitious plan: to have at least 85% of New Zealanders speaking basic te reo Māori by 2040. The initiative includes a $108 million programme that aims to upskill 40,000 teachers and school staff in te reo Māori, starting in 2021. Te Ahu o te Reo Māori aims to improve teachers’ understanding of key elements of te reo Māori, including local words and phrases, foundations of grammar and writing conventions, and other forms of language planning for the classroom environment.

Hopefully, the efforts will come just in time. Up until now, it’s been difficult for non-Māori to pick up the language outside of formalised education. Māori language is taught at pre-school level in Kōhanga Reo (Māori language nests). According to the Ministry of Education, there were approximately 9,000 Māori children enrolled in 460 Kōhanga Reo in 2014, but that had dropped to 6,600 by 2017.

Most Kiwi kids learn basic Māori nouns, phrases, greetings, and songs at primary school. Māori language is taught at some schools as a subject and also through Māori bilingual/immersion education programmes. Indeed, New Zealand English is peppered with Māori words: many places, birds, and trees are only known by their Māori names, and we’re all accustomed to basic Māori greetings and cultural terms. But for most Kiwis, this is about the extent of our handle on te reo.

Knowing the odd word is far from being fluent, and it’s not enough to keep Māori alive. If we want to retain our first de jure language, we’re all going to have to try a little harder.

And there are plenty of reasons to do so.

Why learn another language?

Learning te reo isn’t just about preserving our national identity. Becoming bilingual has proven benefits for the brain, and may even help reduce the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Studies have shown that the cognitive benefits of speaking two or more languages can begin in early childhood and persist throughout life. One of the biggest advantages of speaking two languages is the development of something called executive function. These are mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, pay attention, and go about other various tasks. Executive function also helps us to ignore irrelevant information and only focus on what’s important.

When we can speak two different languages well enough so that each one is activated automatically and subconsciously, we’re doing a lot of brainwork. Our brain has to know which word to call upon so that the wrong word isn’t used at the wrong time.

Research has also shown that being bilingual is very helpful for your brain structure. For a start, gray matter volume increases and becomes denser, which means you have more neurons. These are the makings of a healthy brain. Mastering two languages also improves your white matter: the fatty tissue through which different areas of gray matter communicate within your central nervous system. Healthy white matter allows messages to travel more efficiently between different parts of your brain.

By strengthening these connections, your brain is better able to function as you age. And, considering that the brain begins to decline from about the age of 25, any help to keep it in good shape is a bonus. It’s even been suggested that bilingualism may help to put the brakes on neurodegeneration and slow the rate at which you lose brain cells. There’s plenty of evidence from both older adults and children to suggest that this is exactly the case. Bilingualism has even been shown to slow both the onset and rate of dementia.

In short, bilingualism is good for your brain and good for your longevity.

But there are social benefits, too. Being bilingual or multilingual helps us to connect with other cultures, both within our own country and when travelling. Communicating with someone else in their native tongue allows you to experience their beliefs, traditions, religions, and other aspects of their daily lives. This fosters a deeper understanding of one another, and greater acceptance of other cultures. Studies suggest that children who have learned another language are more open towards different cultures and display more positive attitudes towards other people. When travelling, speaking another person’s language can help you to build lifelong friendships and become involved in communities in ways you never could have imagined.

You’re never too old to learn.

While it’s true that languages are the easiest to pick up during childhood, it’s entirely possible to gain a second language later in life.

When it comes to learning te reo, the key is to start slowly. One way to start is with everyday objects, such as kākahu (clothes), kīhini (kitchen), parāoa (bread), and motukā (car). You can try using everyday phrases such as kei te pēhea koe? (how’s it going?) or kāti te kūaha (shut the door), and wā kai (time to eat).

There are also a handful of free apps designed to teach you how to use Māori words in everyday situations, including Kōrerorero from AUT and Kura App, from the Wellington Faculty of Education. For the dedicated, free online courses are provided by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Whitireia.

Challenge your brain, forge new connections, and save a language. Is there any greater incentive?

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