Thursday, March 31, 2011

For Pasifika bilingualism

Last year, in a shoddy attempt to boost National Standards stats on English literacy, the Ministry of Education suspended publication of Pasifika-language teaching materials. The decision led to a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, and now to a discrimination case before the High Court. But it has also led to a pushback from the Pasifika community, with a petition circulating demanding that bilingual education be restored and that the Niuean, Cook Islands Maori, Tokelauan, Samoan and Tongan languages be officially recognised in New Zealand.

I'm not qualified to comment on the legalities, but they have a strong moral case. Tokelau is part of New Zealand, while the Cook Islands and Niue used to be (and still retain a constitutional relationship). Every Tokelauan, Niuean and Cook Islander is a New Zealand citizen. Most of them live here. They are, in every sense of the word, our people. And we therefore have a clear obligation to protect, preserve and promote these languages, just as we do for Te Reo.

With Samoa the relationship is weaker, but still strong. We were colonial occupiers for almost 50 years, and while they are now independent, we still have a strong relationship. many Samoans became New Zealand citizens as a result of that occupation, and many moved here. Samoans are now our 4th largest ethnic group, and have become a core part of our culture. Arguably, we have language obligations towards them as well.

Tongan is the odd one out. We don't have a shared history with them. But even so, the Ministry of Justice argued in 2000 that we have obligations to protect and preserve the culture and language of our Tongan minority as well.

Bilingual education does not come at the expense of English, and usually helps it. It will result in better educated children, not worse. And this is not about "cultural separatism". These are our cultures in need of protection. But beyond that, culture is no more an either/or thing than language. You can speak more than one language, and you can belong to more than one culture. You can be Pakeha and a New Zealander, Maori and a New Zealander, Chinese and a New Zealander. And as we're seeing in South Auckland today, it is perfectly possible to be both Pasifika and a New Zealander. And we should be supporting that, by supporting these languages.