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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The benefits of learning a language

Whenever the idea of teaching te reo Māori to primary school students comes up, the same arguments against it are raised. Here’s a response to some of the “pragmatic” arguments I’ve heard.

“Let the kids pick a language!”

Letting primary school children choose a language would require schools to hire teachers of multiple different languages. With their services in demand everywhere in the world, language teachers will be looking to teach somewhere with competitive wages, meaning we would have to pay above a normal teaching wage in order to be attractive. However, New Zealand has an effective monopoly on demand for teachers of our national languages, and we could pay more of them at a regular teaching wage.

This practice could also work against students gaining a functional understanding of any language. At every year level you’d have a certain number of students starting from scratch, never advancing very far in their chosen language. Teachers would not be able to assume a baseline level of understanding each year, holding back other students as well.

If we taught te reo throughout primary school, students would be able to build on their knowledge year after year. Beyond learning how to speak te reo, this would provide them with the tools to learn any other language of their choice more easily later on, as once you have learned a second language, learning more languages comes easier. Having a working understanding of te reo would aid students hugely in learning the language of their choice in high school and beyond.

“Okay then, let’s teach them something useful, like Chinese!”

This is an argument always brought forward by monolingual people who don’t understand that learning a language has inherent value regardless of whether or not you can trade in it. Ostensibly Chinese is chosen for trade reasons, as if Chinese people do not already speak English and do not already conduct global trade.

The languages of China are incredibly interesting, and they’re a part of the heritage of many New Zealanders — they’re just not a practical choice when it comes to standardising on a language for every New Zealand child to learn. As I’ve mentioned before, hiring teachers at international rates is very expensive, and it wouldn’t be any less expensive because we standardised on one international language instead of many. New Zealand has a lot of Chinese speakers, but they’re not all able to teach the language.

“What about programming languages?”

Programming is helpful for learning to think about logic, but doesn’t confer any of the benefits of learning a spoken language.

In summary:

Learning a second language comes with many benefits, which makes teaching languages in schools an idea worth discussing. Beyond its cultural value, te reo Māori is the most practical choice when it comes to working towards a multilingual New Zealand.


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