The golden language: A cautionary tale

Spoken Maori can indeed be beautiful, euphonic and lyrical. It can be stirring and emotional. A close friend remarked how, returning from Europe with his lovely wife on the same flight as the French Rugby-sevens entourage travelling to compete here, they were met at the airport transit area by a group of Wellington East Girls College students assembled to welcome the Gallic footballers in the middle of the night, the very first hour of a Tuesday morning. A call went up in the language of Maori, followed by a powhiri delivered to the Frenchmen by a young lady among the college group of size diminutive but vocal cords impressive entirely in te reo. My friend said ?Mate; you should have seen it, it was amazing, beautiful, the whole terminal, everybody, just stopped in their tracks to listen and watch?. I wish I had seen it; that young lady was my daughter.? ??

Later she would supplement her student porridge with garnishes gleaned from part-time tutoring te reo students, for her the language has been of tremendous benefit. She queries when I will sing the national song in Maori, I tell her that will happen when the haka is performed in English. She tells me that?s racist, I tell her that?s paradox.

English is the language of the pragmatist, a language so flexible it can be constrained by nobody. It is a language suitably weighted to trade and commerce, continually evolving and permanently borrowing from other languages when new words appear which more suitably describe, inform or enhance and improve communicating a vision or advancing an idea, especially across borders; both lingual and physical. Old words are jettisoned, so much so that satirist, scholar and author Bill Bryson estimates only a handful of words remain in the modern vernacular of that originally spoken by those dubbed as ?Britons? by invading Romans. One of those words is ?goose?.

This week opinion has been raised about the plausible benefits in compulsory teaching of the Maori language in our schools. The pragmatist in us asks ?to what possible use? and of what cost to other parts of the curriculum. Arguments for and against are plenty. One discussion in vogue is the (undeniable) cognitive benefit of learning a new language, a new way of thinking before speaking, while the pragmatist answers that children are already confronted with learning new languages, some of which they will never master and from which many will simply withdraw given the formidable obstacles to understanding; the language of mathematics is one, music is another, even art is a different language, a different medium of expression indecipherable to some.

Of benefits the pragmatist concedes there are several, but asks if the benefits of learning Maori Language skills out-compete or a priori the benefits of learning, say, Hypertext Markup Language skills. The pragmatist is personal, individual, and normally very well-intentioned, but will base her or his decisions most often on the utility of any device, or thing, or concept, or language and will act accordingly.

The pragmatist should decide for themselves which new language of the competing courses will bring the most benefits. It would be a tremendous mistake to force compulsion on the utilitarian; the result will often be lingering resentment. Decades after leaving school some among us still disparage the time spent trying to conquer Esperanto, Latin, French, Music, Maths or Woodwork, which although included in the best interests of inspiring us instilled instead only a sense of failure, and of a time ?wasted?.

Advocates of teaching Maori language in schools, though well-intentioned, need to be mindful in calling for compulsion citing whatever they deem the diverse ?benefits? to be, whether social, moral, lingual or any other, because they may end up cooking their own goose, so to speak, and losing it all, plus any interest.