Opinion: How Māori Language Week is like Irish Week

  • 15/09/2018

OPINION: It's Te Wiki O Te Reo (Māori Language Week) here in New Zealand, a week when the general population are encouraged to speak Te Reo (meaning, literally, "the language"), attend classes or special events in Te Reo. As someone who works in the conservation and revival of Irish culture, I watch Te Wiki O Te Reo with interest because I know how critical language foe the generational transfer of cultural concepts and ideas.

Although living in New Zealand, my kids and I speak Irish (Gaelic) at home. Even that limited exposure to the Irish language allows them to think in a Gaelic manner and strengthens their connection with that part of their heritage. Because of their Māori whakapapa (my partner is Māori), my kids are also fluent in Te Reo. They wouldn't be able to fully engage in Māori culture if they weren't.

Overall, Te Wiki O Te Reo is a positive event and the festival certainly garners an element of interest in Te Reo from people who wouldn't otherwise have been exposed to the language. In terms of actual outcomes for language sustainability/conservation however, I'm probably a little more pessimistic.

Māori Language Week reminds me a lot of Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Week) which takes place every year in the lead up to St Patrick's Day, focusing on events of Irish interest, predominantly language but also culture and music. The problem with 'Language Weeks' like Seachtain na Gaeilge and Te Wiki O Te Reo is that they're one-off, "feel good" marketing events that don't form part of a cohesive strategy to revitalise the language. Although successful in terms of raising interest, they don't work so well at sustaining that interest or developing it into something more meaningful.

In Ireland, for example, Seachtain na Gaeilge has been running since 1903 (originally funded and run by Conradh na Gaeilge but now funded through Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish Government's institution for promoting the Irish Language) and yet the number of Gaelic speakers has dropped substantially over that time. In addition, any tangible long-term benefits of those Language Weeks have never been fully clarified. In all that time, there have been few (or no) independent assessment of Seachtain na Gaeilge's effectiveness and value for money. If there have, the results have certainly been kept under wraps.

Part of the problem, of course, is that language revitalisation takes far more effort, resource and commitment than a week-long language festival can deliver. In addition, language conservation (and subsequent revitalisation) requires a long-term dedication which means that it'll never be effectively carried out by national governments. (the long-term goal of language revitalisation it doesn't align well governments' short-term re-election goals [of 3-4 years]).

To give the impression of doing something therefore, governments generally tend to opt for easier, short-terms programmes. In this respect, Language Weeks fit the bill perfectly, offering immense public marketing hype, political exposure and numerous photo opportunities.

Although it's certainly good to celebrate the Māori or Irish language every now and again, there does need to be some sense of recognition on what such Government-funded Language Weeks can realistically provide. In Ireland and New Zealand, the most successful programmes I've seen with respect to language retention and development (Gaelscoils, TnaG, Whare Kohunga etc) invariably originated from community groups and private individuals working quietly but tirelessly, on a sustained daily basis, to keep their language (and through it, their culture) alive and well. If they're successful and become public, suddenly the Government appear to take the credit.

That's how this works.

Brian O'Sullivan is an Irish author, based in Wellington. You can read more about his work at irishimbassbooks.com.

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