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NZ’s official languages: What you need to know

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By Katie Kenny of RNZ

Language is on the agenda for the Government, with a promise to legislate to give English official status.

This is in addition to the requirement that all public service departments have their primary name in English, except for those specifically related to Māori, and communicate primarily in English – again, except for those specifically related to Māori. It is part of the coalition agreement between National and NZ First.

Te reo Māori was made an official language in 1987, followed by New Zealand sign language in 2006. For many, it will be news that English doesn’t also have special status under the law.

In 2018, NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell lodged a member’s bill to add English to the list at the time. He said the bill would “rectify a long-standing issue”.

But then-Justice Minister Amy Adams said English didn’t need legal recognition to be official, describing it as a “de facto official language by virtue of its widespread use”.

According to the 2018 Census, English was the most common language spoken in Aotearoa New Zealand, with 95.4 per cent of the population able to hold a conversation about everyday things. The next most common languages were te reo Māori (4 per cent) and Samoan (2.2 per cent). NZSL was used by 0.5 per cent of the population.

So what would change?

It’s not common for Anglosphere countries to have English as an official language, says Louisa Willoughby, an associate professor of linguistics at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. (Canada is an exception, where English and French have equal status.)

This is because, as Adams said, English is already the default.

“People tend to legislate around language when they’re worried about preserving that language,” Willoughby says.

“It’s hard to make a legal argument that English is threatened in New Zealand, Australia, or the United States, for example.”

What, then, would the proposal change?

“Nothing,” says Andrew Geddis, a professor of law at the University of Otago.

Legislation is intended to solve problems, he says. “What is the social problem here that requires a solution? English is already an official language. It can be used in all public settings.”

Making te reo Māori and NZSL official meant people had the right to use the languages in court, for example.

“You don’t need any sort of legislative permission to use English.”

Geddis refers to the policy as “virtue-signalling”: “There seem to be some people out there who fear English is under threat and is somehow going to be overtaken in New Zealand. This [policy] seems to be a way to try to respond to that fear.”

Crowds of protesters turned up at the Sound Shell at Napier's Marine Parade last Saturday morning to protest against the Government's policy relating to Maori people, language and culture. Photo / Neill Gordon
Crowds of protesters turned up at the Sound Shell at Napier’s Marine Parade last Saturday morning to protest against the Government’s policy relating to Maori people, language and culture. Photo / Neill Gordon

Te reo Māori and NZSL

If making English an official language wouldn’t change anything for English speakers, what did the Māori Language Act and NZSL Act achieve?

The signing of the Māori Language Act in 1987 was a ”golden moment”, according to those who had been pushing for better recognition of te reo Māori. Because just seven years after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Education Ordinance 1847 set English as the predominant, normal language of schools. Schools started to ban te reo Māori and punish children caught speaking it.

By 1970, only 5 per cent of Māori children could speak their language. At the same time, a new wave of Māori activism came to the fore, resulting in the Māori Language Petition presented to Parliament and the subsequent revival of te reo.

The act established a Māori Language Commission now known as Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori, introduced a right to speak Māori in legal proceedings, and enabled the granting of certificates of competency in the Māori language.

In 2016, it was replaced by a bilingual bill that acknowledged te reo as a “taonga” and put more emphasis on protecting and promoting the language.

Dr Rachel McKee, programme director of NZSL Studies and director of the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Victoria University of Wellington, says like the Māori Language Act, the NZSL Act was “mainly about status recognition”.

“It codifies the right to have interpreters in courts. As an off-shoot, it’s also given moral leverage to government agencies and entities to pay attention to the needs of NZSL users. It’s certainly increased its visibility.”

She points to the previous government’s Covid-19 media briefings with NZSL interpreters present, as an example.

Labour disability issues spokeswoman Ruth Dyson was the member in charge of the NZSL Act 2006. At the time, she said Māori and sign language needed special status, because English “was the only language in common use in broadcasting and law”.

Te Pati Maori MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke at a swearing-in ceremony in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Te Pati Maori MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke at a swearing-in ceremony in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

What’s really going on?

Even if the proposal would not change how English is used, there’s an argument there’s benefit in tidying up the legislation.

“It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it that English is so widely used [but isn’t an official language like Māori and NZSL],” says Dr Julia de Bres, a sociolinguist and senior lecturer at Massey University.

“If it was just about tidying the legislation, I wouldn’t have a problem with the proposal,” she says. But in the context of the Government’s promised changes to Te Tiriti o Waitangi relations and co-governance, “I don’t think that’s what it’s about”.

If it isn’t needed for practical reasons, we can infer it’s being done for symbolic or other reasons, she adds.

“Dominant social groups work to maintain their power. And it’s possible some people feel if more Māori is being used, that means English is losing its power. So it’s a move to maintain the linguistic status quo.

“It can be framed as a tidying up exercise, but if English is named as ‘official’, that’ll be used by people to impose English in places where otherwise te reo Māori might have had a chance.”

What’s next?

Former NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell didn’t respond to a request for comment. NZ First Party President Julian Paul said: “Work on this commitment is still ongoing”.

Making English an official language isn’t in the 100-day plan and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon hasn’t put a deadline on it.

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