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The puzzling push for te reo in public

Is using untranslated Māori words counter-productive?
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
September 7th, 2022

OPINION: I have spent many years learning languages other than English — formally at school and university, and informally in private — but I find it difficult to grasp exactly what the current craze for inserting untranslated phrases in te reo Māori into English broadcasts and publications is expected to achieve.

Recently, a press release by Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said her travels to Niue and Tonga were “to engage kanohi ki te kanohi with counterparts”.

As a wag on the Point of Order blog noted: “We imagine this is a legal form of behaviour among consenting adults and look forward to the television coverage.”

I had long assumed inserting such untranslated phrases was a clumsy attempt to teach more people basic Māori vocabulary — but I have been told very firmly by a te reo revitalisation expert that I am mistaken. The aim is not acquisition of the language, he said, but rather encouraging correct pronunciation (when it is spoken) and elevating the status of te reo (presumably in part to kindle interest in learning it).

That news came as a relief because I can’t imagine that many will have learned anything other than a handful of Māori words even after repeated listening to RNZ, watching TVNZ or reading articles on Stuff.

Certainly, in my case, I have probably added no more than 25 words to my Māori vocabulary in the past five years from listening to and reading media reports and official documents.

I now know what mahi (work), whenua (land), mātauranga (knowledge), mauri (life force), rohe (territory) and a few other words mean but that is not much of a return on the amount of te reo I have been exposed to through news media, public signage, government Covid advertising and press releases — and even, to my surprise, via extended service announcements on Auckland’s ferries.

I understood more words five years ago when I made an attempt to learn some Māori grammar and vocabulary but they mostly disappeared from my memory within months after I had given up. Part of the reason for my lack of grit in pursuing te reo is that I know just how hard it is to learn a second, third or fourth language with any degree of proficiency. And just how hard it is to maintain it — unless you find yourself immersed in the language or are willing to devote much of your spare time to studying it.

People learn languages for a variety of reasons — sometimes as a necessity for business; or because they have moved to a new country; or because they want to be better equipped for travel and communicating with locals.

More uncommonly, they may be deeply attracted to another culture — including that of Ancient Greece and Rome as the basis of much of Western culture — and want to study its literature, philosophy and history in its original language.

Occasionally, people have imagined that a foreign power will soon dominate the world — militarily, financially or culturally — and it would be an advantage to speak their tongue. I have known people who studied Russian in the 1970s and Japanese in the 1980s for that reason. Possibly Mandarin falls into that category today.

Very few, however, in my experience learn another language — or even how to pronounce words correctly — out of a sense of duty or because they are told it will be good for them. Or that it will fulfil some ill-defined “Treaty obligation”. Yet that seems to be at least the subtext of the government’s push for te reo.

The use of random untranslated te reo words and phrases feels very much like a headmaster at an old-fashioned boarding school shouting at truculent pupils marshalling spinach disconsolately around their plates: “You will eat your greens because they are good for you! And you will enjoy them!”

I think it is this paternalistic, Papa-knows-best approach that most riles people. The unfortunate fact for the government and its language commissars is that in the internet age no nation’s media outlets have a monopoly on an audience’s attention — apart from in countries such as North Korea and China.

In a world awash with options for news and entertainment in English streaming in from countries around the world, the decision to persevere with inserting Māori words to form a hybrid tongue — dubbed “Manglish” or “Maoglish” by critics — seems frankly bizarre.

Advocates of language revitalisation insist that a few phrases here and there are inconsequential and audiences should be gracious and accepting of them but few sane entertainment or news organisations would ever dream of doing that.

I was Metro magazine’s film critic for nearly 20 years, and among the more than 400 films I reviewed in that time — a good proportion of them art-house films with subtitles — I can’t recall any instances of foreign phrases that were not translated with subtitles for an English-speaking audience.

Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz annoyed many of the readers of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by inserting phrases and sentences in Spanish without translation. He explained to Slate magazine: “I want people to research, to ask each other, to question. But also I want there to be an element of incomprehension.”

He added: “Isn’t it about time that folks started getting used to the fact that the United States comprises large Spanish-speaking segments?”

However, Diaz’s inclusion of Spanish without a translation seemed to many readers to be the epitome of arrogance — just as using te reo in English news does to many New Zealanders who don’t expect or welcome an “element of incomprehension”, however minor, inserted untranslated into media reports or official documents.

Parts of our media seem to think it is a good idea but I have found that such advocates have no response when asked whether they would think it would be an equally good idea to have even brief bursts of sign language used without an accompanying English translation in a television broadcast.

Yet, sign language was made an official language by the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006. It has been estimated that more than 23,000 people in New Zealand have some knowledge of NZSL.

Energetic interpreters busily translated the entire 1pm addresses by the Prime Minister and Dr Ashley Bloomfield day after day during the lengthy “elimination” phase of Covid, but few — apart from the hearing impaired — will have taken any interest. It’s a vital service for the deaf, but of little interest to anyone else.

Is it really a case of disrespecting the deaf to take no interest in sign language? If it isn’t, it’s very difficult to argue that taking no interest in te reo constitutes disrespecting Māori either.

Inserting untranslated words — no matter whether in sign language or te reo — is certainly not a winning strategy for any enterprise, in print or broadcast, that wants to keep its audience.

It is said that one reason RNZ’s Morning Report has been shucking off listeners rapidly over the past few years is because of its regular insertion of Māori words and phrases into broadcasts. Insiders say management knows this is a problem but staffers are rarely brave enough to say so aloud.

Certainly, you’d have to say a business model that incorporates the slogan “Giving people more of what they don’t want!” is plainly suicidal.

A rule in mass-market journalism has long been to prefer simple words that any audience will understand. In fact the NZ Herald used to boast that its vocabulary could be understood by a 12-year-old.

Newspaper subeditors would routinely replace multisyllabic words in copy with simpler, blunter ones. For example, light would always be preferred to illumination, speed to velocity, and burn to incinerate.

What has changed so dramatically that it is suddenly acceptable to use even a smattering of words that 95 per cent or more of the audience won’t understand?

Columnists for newspapers such as the UK’s Daily Telegraph will occasionally insert Latin phrases that aren’t translated (such as “ne plus ultra” and “sine qua non”) but a lot of their older readers can still probably remember enough school Latin to understand them.

In the Telegraph’s case, the use of such phrases is often seen as a social marker — that is to say, snobbery — and some view untranslated te reo in the same light.

Expat foreigners have told me they find the mixing of two languages in New Zealand’s media very odd.

Irish friends living in Auckland say they quite like the practice — but find it strange nevertheless. “So we live in Tāmaki Makaurau, right?” one asked me recently, with a grin, after watching the weather bulletin on 1News.

They say Irish and English are never mixed that way in Ireland in public broadcast media — even though learning Irish at school is compulsory from the start of primary school at the age of six until 16.

If the use of intermittent te reo is intended to raise its status — and to interest many more people in studying it — it’s moot whether, on balance, it has been a wild success. Despite reports of waiting lists for te reo courses, it is quite possible its net effect has been to diminish its standing overall given the numbers of those annoyed by it.

It is significant that the current Labour government hasn’t made teaching Māori compulsory in schools — and a comparison with the compulsory teaching of Irish in Ireland’s schools provides an obvious reason.

Ireland’s population is over 82 per cent White Irish. Consequently, the vast majority of schoolchildren in Ireland are learning the language of their own ancestors.

Even then its compulsory nature is contentious, with critics saying modern languages should replace it and deriding it as a forced and fake way of manufacturing a national identity that often has the reverse effect.

The case for compulsory te reo is much weaker, of course, given Maori is the language of the ancestors of only 17 per cent of New Zealanders.

Associate Minister of Education Kelvin Davis recognised this danger in July: “If we were to compel people [to learn at school], we would have a backlash, and it might have the opposite effect.”

The debate over the viability of te reo has to be viewed in light of the brutal fact that minority languages are facing “digital extinction” everywhere as English expands its reach worldwide through the internet.

No doubt for that reason, surveys have shown most New Zealanders are happy for te reo to be supported via dedicated outlets such as Whakaata Māori (formerly Māori Television) — even at considerable cost to the taxpayer — so anyone who wants to hear the language spoken can enjoy it and learn it there.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Willie Jackson, the Minister for Māori Development and a former broadcaster himself, admitted last year that Māori TV’s audience was “minimal” and attributed that to a lack of good programming — in English.

“In the past it has all been about the language [te reo], a huge focus on the language, but we need our own news in English and we need our own programmes in English,” Jackson said.

“It’s not so much about the language, it’s about the stories. Most of our people don’t speak te reo and we shouldn’t do it at the expense of our people.”

The fact that the vast majority of Māori don’t speak their ancestral language, and most are not inclined to learn, is one reason many non-Māori dislike finding te reo in mass media and official documents — and why they resent being called dinosaurs and racists for saying so.

It is true, however, that if New Zealand doesn’t preserve the Māori language, who else will? But the question remains whether the current policy of peppering media reports and official documents with te reo is the best way to go about it.

An item featuring Tūhoe activist Tama Iti on TVNZ’s 1News last week showed how the language can be used in a way that respects the fact the vast majority of New Zealanders don’t speak or understand Māori while giving it ample airtime.

When Iti spoke in Māori about his new art exhibition in Wellington “I Will Not Speak Māori”, it was subtitled in English — including even a few sentences when he was speaking predominantly in English but used a handful of words in te reo as well.

The format made it easy to pair words in Māori with their English equivalents.

No reasonable person could find that objectionable — except perhaps language revivalists who arrogantly assume words in te reo should never be translated no matter how few of their compatriots understand them.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.