Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mistranslating Maori: more butterflies about Kindy

Every country has its own mythology. Prior to moving here, I thought that New Zealand was remarkably clear-eyed about itself, with the exception of a forgivable and entirely understandable national delusion that the All Blacks are in fact God's Chosen Team. But I have discovered a second, the simplicity of Maori, which is apparently such an easy language to pick up that it is astonishing that you, dear reader, aren't already speaking it fluently purely by virtue of having watched the haka on telly during the Rugby World Cup. There is a particular gleam that comes into New Zealanders' eyes when you mention you would love to learn Maori one day. "Ah yes," they say, "no problem, it's very easy."
Really? you say hopefully. I thought, being a South Pacific language with no grammatical similarities to the IndoEuropean group of languages, that I might find some of it a bit tricky, if not darned impossible. I mean, a language teacher once advised me it helped to speak Maori if you already knew Japanese. Call me naive, but I have never thought of Japanese as an easy linguistic stepping-stone before.

"No no, it's very easy, you see so many words are borrowed from English," they say. "And there are only five vowel sounds in Maori."
Right, you say, looking doubtfully at the Beginners Maori book in front of you, which seems to clearly state that there are long and short vowel sounds which essentially sound completely different and rather suggest that in practice there are several more. You decide not to pursue to the point, and ask instead: But what about these sentences with particles that seem to mean a hundred and one different things, entirely dependent on the context (which as a beginner I don't have yet)? Plus a tense system that bears no relationship to any of the tenses I have seen in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, German and Italian (don't worry, I don't speak all of these, I have just had at various points needed to pretend that I did in order to get ordained or manage a tour of teenage Americans in Rome) How did you get over that?
"Oh well," they say "I don't personally speak it. But I've heard it's very easy."

Now call me mistrustful but the fact that no one appears to speak any Maori, despite having had to learn it for years at school, seems to be a bit of a red flag suggesting that perhaps, just perhaps, Maori is not the grammatical and lexical walk in the park that everyone here promises me it is. I am particularly suspicious of the claim that the vocabulary is particularly easy, because this week I decided to learn body parts. I had two books (borrowed from the preschool) which both showed body part names in confidential diagrammatical detail. Only problem is, several of the names were completely different. I went to an online dictionary. Several words differed again. Aha, I thought, regional dialects. No surprise there, languages with an oral history will often consist of several different dialects, without the written incentive to develop a standardised form. Never mind, I thought, I'll just look up the standardised version used in schools today (the idea was that I could save my eldest some stress by teaching him a few Maori words before he started school).
It appeared there was no standardised version. I found documents from Hamilton, from Auckland, and from Wellington, all confidently preaching completely different terms for really obscure words like "head" and "eye." For ankle, I found three different words.
It appears that never mind the grammar, even Maori vocab is going to be a bit of a battle. How do I know which word the school is using? What if I teach my son the wrong one?

This overconfidence by people who don't actually speak Maori, but genuinely seem to believe that they would speak it if they just spent a weekend sometime brushing up on the basics, that it must be easy to grasp if it is on road signs, reminds me a little bit of the overconfidence people who have had a little bit of experience of autism can show. I mean, like Maori, autism is jolly complex. I don't understand much about it at all, and I have two children with this diagnosis. But I am constantly astonished how people with even less experience than I believe they can diagnose - or undiagnose - or pontificate on what "children with autism need" - or will respond to - or will do. My encounter with the pompous kindergarten teacher this week has made me think about this. It sometimes seems as if the less experience you have of autism, the more you believe you are able to generalise. The arrogant and overconfident are the ones who know the least. This is very difficult, because when you are trusting your child to a system it is often those who sound most certain that they can handle them are least equipped to do so.

I think - from talking to Kiwis of my generation who studied Maori at school - that the quality of teaching was often very low. There was much good-will and good intentions, but little expertise. Plus, the lazy "just teach them vocab and phrases" approach to languages which has so soiled British language teaching to the point where it is possible to get an A-star at GCSE by being able to ask for the toilet meant that the fiendish grammatical stuff was ignored, or minimised, or left to the few who struggled on to take it at a higher level. I suspect that there may also have been Showing children that Maori was actually very complex might put them off, and it was important not to put children off, because then they might not want to learn Maori. I am guessing, and extrapolating, and making huge assumptions - but then, that's the fun of living in a new country, you don't really know anything for certain so you have to guess and make the best judgement you can - but my impression is that the feeling of having children who LIKED the Maori language and thought it was FUN was more important than children who were actually learning to speak it fluently. Which would have been very much harder, much like teaching them Latin. I think that something similar has happened recently in the Special Educational Needs world (in Britain: I don't know about here), where teachers have been given lots of fluffy feel-good nonsense about how to include kids with SN, but precious little info and expertise in how to do it.

My comments on Maori teaching obviously relate to the education that my contemporaries had. I have no idea what Maori teaching is like now. Hopefully it is amazing and inspiring, that holy language grail of fun AND effective. But when I started learning body parts I did notice, with some consternation, that the kindergarten that my son is currently attending has the WRONG TRANSLATION written on the wall for the very simple action song that they are learning each day. If I can work this out, with all of a few hours' study of the language, it suggests that the teaching staff's Maori proficiency is somewhat lacking. Yet they are very proud indeed of their efforts to introduce Maori activities into the kindergarten.
I am nervous that this is the kind of uninformed, overconfident, approach they take to other issues too. Like Special Needs. How do I know that they will not manage my son equally ill-informedly, and equally over-confidently? Will they listen to the experts, the SN educational specialists from the Ministry? Or will they believe they know it all, like the woman who tried to undiagnose my sons?

The mistake with the Maori song is so minor, it should not bother me. But it does. It just does. It feels so minor, yet so significant. I can't shift this feeling of unease.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oops removed comment as realised put in some personal info. Here it is without personal info.

    With the teaching staff at the kindy, having heard all your stories about the UK over the years, isn't this really par for the course for the mis-informed care professional? I am fingers crossed hoping that the good teacher and manager there will cancel out the bad one.

    I'm 44 (still, just!) and we were not taught the Maori language in primary school, and it was an optional on the secondary school cirriculum. We got some language songs, and cultural stuff, and pronunciation.

    If you want a jolly good 'laugh' check out some of the children's vocab books. There's one I've seen with a squirrel in it. Because it is hugely important to learn the Maori for squirrel, an animal that is neither native to NZ NOR will actually ever be seen by children in NZ.

    I'd just like to clarify that when I mentioned to you that you'd find it an easier language to pick up having learnt Italian, I didn't mean that it was because Maori is easy.

    I was thinking of my paternal great uncle, who arrived in NZ with only Italian, and learnt Maori before he was able to master English. His is not the only anectdote I've heard that's similar about the difficulties of learning English.

  3. Hi Gipsy - I have another NZ friend of your "era" who also says that she was not taught anything at school at all. It's very interesting as it seems in the past to have varied massively by area which is something i hadn't realised at all, I had assumed that learning Maori would be a national policy. That makes me realise that I may be being a little hard on the kindergarten because actually they may be trying to learn the language in order to teach it, which is always a very difficult thing to do, and mistakes are much more likely (I should know, trying to teach my son numbers and getting them wrong!)

    The story about your great-uncle is fascinating - what work was he doing? You would think English would have been a prerequisite for getting any work in NZ as a new arrival, unless he was working with Italians I guess.

    I totally agree about the grammar problem but I unfortunately think there is an international laziness in all Englishspeaking countries about learning a foreign language properly these days anyway.

    My father had to learn Irish at school and HATED it, couldn't remember a word. So did all his (Protestant) contemporaries. It was a tribal thing, they felt it was a symptom of Catholic oppression. Fifty years later, and I was astonished to find that young Irish often thought that Irish was cool, and made great efforts to learn it - it is so often a thing that varies by generation.

  4. And Gipsy - on your advice I have just flicked through the book of Maori words for childrne - it includes "polar bear" and "bowtie." Now polar bear, well I guess it has a context if you were doing animals. But really, on what planet do you need to know the Maori for bowtie as a learner child?

  5. on the other hand I can understand having a Maori word for bowtie, but why would you have a Maori word for Polar Bear?

    The 1970s when we were at primary were a time of huge change in NZ, and a decade of Maori Nationalism. Maori and Maori culture became a part of the cirriculum, a proper part that is not in a wheeling it out for pakeha entertainment kind of way. It was a massive leap forward to have what we did, however little it was, compared to the previous decade. By 1979 so much had changed. I can't even begin to go into it here, too much.

    Have a look at Whina Cooper's life history. She was a big influence on me, as a kid. Definitely why I went on to become a strident pacifist as a teenager and young adult. And whenever anyone says what I can I do, I'm only one person I think of her.

  6. >>You would think English would have been a prerequisite for getting any work in NZ as a new arrival, unless he was working with Italians I guess.

    I've been thinking about this and wondering why you think that NZ would have had language rules as part of its immigration policy?

    He grew vegetables, as did all my paternal grandfather's family (shock, Italians selling vegetables, stereotypical I know).

  7. No I didn't mean language rules, just that it would have beeen tricky to find your way around and persuade someone to employ you when you were in a new country unless you spoke a local language, unless you initially hung out with people from your own country - it is hard to conduct a job interview by mime! :-)

  8. It depends on what skills you have perhaps? It must be possible, and people seem to do fairly well work wise regardless. It doesn't seem to stop people coming to the UK and setting up businesses here, especially at the moment if they have building or plumbing skills.

  9. Going to butt in here and say - blithely - that although I know nothing whatsoever about Maori, I consider Japanese to be quite straightforward to learn to speak (reading is a different matter, with all those kanji). There are only two verb tenses in our sense of tense as marker of when in time: past (only one past tense) and present/future (all one); more specific denotations of when something did/will happen are given through context/other words in the phrase. The other part of the conjunctions that is trickier is that these tenses have different suffixes that are based on levels of formality, and there are a handful of those, but again, once you've mastered them, that's it, basically. I was really quite fluent within just a few months...

  10. Fascinating, LM. I am very impressed: my friends who taught in Japan found it very tough and did not get very far. Perhaps they were more visual than aural language learners.