Obsession with pronunciation killing te reo Māori - historian

  • 15/01/2018

Te reo Māori could soon be extinct because we're too obsessed with pronunciation, historian Professor Paul Moon claims.

Prof Moon claims that constantly correcting people only serves to put them off trying and if we want Te Reo to survive, we have to lay off the pronunciation snobbery. 

"People get so dogmatic about it," he says. "'You must pronounce it this way, you must say it like that.' Those things serve to damage the language more than save it."

Prof Moon says pronunciation is always going to be a challenge for many people, but there's no absolute rule with languages.

"Your ability to pronounce any language is to do with the way you pronounce your mother tongue when you're brought up. We've got to start asking what's more important? Is it getting it right, or actually speaking it?"

In a new book, Killing Te Reo Māori: An Indigenous Language Facing Extinction, Prof Moon argues that many of our approaches to saving Te Reo are backfiring, and the language could soon be dead as a result. 

"Every year, we see a new campaign, and new method, or a new idea which its backers promise will revitalise te reo Māori. Some show a lack of rudimentary understanding of how languages survive or die, most are ill-conceived, and all ultimately fail."

Other failed approaches include forcing our kids to learn Te Reo at school, having three spelling conventions - macrons, double vowels or neither - as well as our obsession with the cultural importance of the language.

"When we learn Māori, we're taught its significance, what it means to us as a nation, how to pronounce it correctly, and that we must protect it. 

"These are bogus reasons to protect a language."

Prof Moon, whose other titles include This Horrid Practice: The Myth and Reality of Traditional Māori Cannibalism, says his own Te Reo is not good, and that exemplifies the problem.

"We teach Te Reo to our children to a reasonable level of fluency. But you go to your Te Reo class, you finish and then you're outside with your fellow students speaking English. It doesn't work."

But not all is lost - we just need to adjust our approach.

"Every language is up against the success of English," he says, "which has broken all the rules and adapted to become an international phenomenon." 

Prof Moon says we need to find more practical applications for Te Reo. One option could be the introduction of a law that demands half of civil servants must be able to speak the language. 

"If you ask any second language learner why they're learning, they're not going to say they're doing it for the cultural significance of the language. They're going to say they learn it because it has practical implications for their life.

"Te Reo has to provide a personal benefit to people or we won't use it and we will forget it," he says.