Mother-tongue learning: the essential primer

Ani Rauhihi, New Zealand 

" A lot of people think Ďwhatís the point of learning Maori? Youíve got to know English to get a job. "
If you grow up not speaking your language, you wonít know who you are," says Ani Rauhihi, a Maori primary-school teacher in the North Island of New Zealand. Maori is closely related to Rarotongan, Tahitian, Hawaiian and other languages spoken in the Polynesian islands from which, according to Maori tradition, seven canoes in early times brought their ancestors to New Zealand. Today, about 250,000 strong, they have their own members of parliament, but few people would claim that the Maoris are fully included in the New Zealand societal community.

Ani teaches 9- to 12-year-olds in the Maori Immersion Unit of Petone Central School, a short walk from the beach where the first white settlers landed in New Zealand in 1840. After the settlement, the Maoris lost much of their land and, since the educational authorities insisted that only English be spoken in schools, they almost lost their language as well. School children were punished for speaking Maori which was recognised as an official language of New Zealand, along with English, only in 1987.

Ani believes that a knowledge of oneís mother tongue is the key to self-esteem

Ani grew up without being able to speak her own language beyond a few simple greetings. "Mum had no Maori. Dad could understand it but he would never speak it," says Ani. Now a fluent Maori speaker, she believes that a knowledge of the language is the key to giving her people back their self-esteem and raising Maori educational achievement.

In the immersion classrooms, called the Whanau (family), children must observe Maori customs and remove their shoes before entering. "This sets the tone. The children donít see it as rules, but as part of Maori custom, part of their identity."

All subjects are taught in Maori as she believes that "teaching reflects our values. Teachers work together and other Maori adults visit regularly. Everybody does things together and this takes the pressure off individual children who can freeze up if they are singled out. Thereís a lot of story telling and singing. The older children help teach the younger ones. We try to foster Maori values such as respect for elders. Everyone has something of value to add."

In this warm, supportive environment children are eager to learn. "A young Maori boy whoís often disruptive in the ordinary classroom is sometimes sent to us. Here he joins in the singing, fits in and is no trouble at all. Unfortunately, his parents donít want him taught only in Maori."

In the working class area where Ani teaches, many of the children come from homes where single-parents are on welfare. Those who work tend to be drivers or unskilled labourers. Ani easily identifies with such families since she grew up in a small town where her parents worked in the local factory.

"Iím the first in the family to get a higher education," she says. It was during teacher training that she attended a hui or Maori gathering. "The people were so passionate about holding onto the language," she said. "It was an awakening for me".

Ani has a gift for understanding Maori children. "If a child is off task one day, Iíll take him or her aside. I watch their body language. You can draw a lot from that. I donít come down hard. They might not have had any breakfast or maybe hadnít slept well.

Ani laments the dearth of teaching resources in the Maori language. "There are no math books, for instance. But we have become very adept at creating our own materials on the computer. This takes up all our spare time, but we donít want to give our students second best."

When she began teaching, she sometimes had doubts. "A lot of people think íWhatís the point of learning Maori? Youíve got to know English to get a jobí But now I look at the faces of children and know that what weíre doing is important. Theyíre confident, open, ready to learn. Sadly, there are a lot more Maori children struggling and getting into trouble in schools where little Maori is taught. Itís those children I worry about because theyíre missing out on their heritage."