Taonga means “treasure” in the language of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori. Their language is also called Māori or Te Reo Māori, which enjoys official language status in New Zealand together with English and New Zealand Sign Language. Commonly referred to as “te reo” or “the language,” Māori is under the Eastern Polynesian language group. As of the 2006 Census, around 157,110 residents of New Zealand claimed that they could speak Māori. The Māori Language Commission currently regulates this language.
Māori was the predominant language of the country until 1800s. With the influx of English speaking missionaries, settlers, traders and gold seekers, Māori soon became New Zealand’s minority language.
New Zealand’s colonial governments adopted the English-style educational system around the later part of the 19th century. Authorities forbade the use of this indigenous language in the school system in the 1880s. It was believed that this was actually upon the request of the Māori leaders who saw the value of English fluency to their younger generation. As years passed since then, more Māoris learned English. It was in the latter part of the 1930s that the decline in numbers of Māori speakers became evident.
Around the 1980s, several programs were initiated in order to increase the numbers of Māori speakers. Māori leaders at this time recognized the imminent loss of their ancestral language.
Māori-Language Recovery Programs
The following programs and initiatives were launched to combat the eventual disappearance of Māori:
• Te Ātaarangi, a type of language learning system was adopted
• Kōhanga Reo movement, a movement started in 1982 wherein infants to pre-school age children were immersed in Māori
• Kura Kaupapa Māori, founded in the latter part of the 1980s, was a Māori primary-school program
Other programs were in the field of broadcasting. The government of New Zealand was held responsible for preserving the language under the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. This ruling came out during the1994 Privy Council held in the United Kingdom. In March of 2004, the state then began funding Māori Television.
Māori Television’s broadcasts were and still are bilingual. Four years after, a second channel was born aptly called Te Reo. Te Reo broadcasts entirely in Māori during primetime up to this day.
Usage in Government
Māori gained its status as “official” due to the passing of the 1987 Māori Language Act. The said act gave rise to the Māori Language Commission. The different departments and agencies in the country use (and display) bilingual names. Signs and stationeries used in government offices and in public institutions are bilingual. Māori place-names are recognized by the New Zealand Post. All transactions involving government agencies can be done in Māori. However, interpreters are often called on for assistance.
In Parliament, a Member can use Māori if he so wishes. But since it is not spoken nor understood fully by all Parliament members, interpreters must always be present during sessions. Even in public consultations, interpreters have to be on hand in case Māori is spoken.
Languages and dialects continue to lose their footing as years go by. Kudos should be given to the Māori people and the New Zealand government for recognizing the importance of preserving Te Reo. After all, ancestral languages and dialects are a birthright of its people and part of a country’s heritage. Other governments and indigenous peoples should follow New Zealand’s example. Preserving languages and dialects translate to preserving a people’s culture and national identity.