culture | 2 october 2016

Should Te Reo be compulsory in schools? trinity thompson-browne opens up the conversation from a metaphorical point of view.

words: trinity thompson-browne

artworks: courtesy of te kura kaupapa māori o ngā mokopuna


"Te Reo should be compulsory in all schools!"

"No it shouldn't! Give them the choice, don't shove it down their throats."

"How does the government plan on sourcing this? There aren't enough Māori teachers."

"Compulsory Te Reo would be nice, but it's just not practical."

"They should be learning Chinese, that's the language of the future."

"What's Te Reo good for? It's almost dead anyway."

"Pākehās speaking Te Reo? They don't even say the word 'Māori' right..."

"There are high schools doing Te Reo by bloody correspondence! And they want to make it compulsory



Deciding to listen well before speaking, I've observed and watched on for a long while as opinions from every angle have weighed in on the topic of Te Reo in schools. Likely you've heard all of these and then some – it's a hot topic compounded tenfold by the intense cultural stigma it carries; and let's be real here, you know it, I know it. If we were talking about Chinese or Spanish, the conservation is more likely to be around what benefits it gives to our children and their futures, not what it takes from them, or how useless it is, or how impractical is. There's also those who don't want Te Reo mispronounced so badly that the language is beyond recognition, and that's understandable too. Interestingly enough though, no one has talked about the languages themselves and for the most part it's remained a hotly contested political issue. So, that's what this piece is here to disrupt.

"Languages are different ways of seeing the same world we all share."

Languages are different ways of seeing the same world we all share. Varying in many ways, the specific feature we're looking at are the metaphors they use. In language, metaphors are everywhere. They serve the purpose of grounding abstract concepts like love, emotions, time, life, death and many others, in concrete concepts such as the weather, heat or its absence, day and night, spatial direction, money or the environment, giving that which is unseen yet felt in the human experience, a degree of concreteness. In English for example, 'She's on cloud nine vs he's down in the dumps' are common phrases with one meaning happy and one sad, but instead of just saying the emotion, the meaning is conveyed through the spatial directions of up and down. While happy and sad are universally understood concepts, the metaphors these are grounded in will be different for every language. Saying 'I'm on cloud nine' in Mongolian for example, will either be total nonsense or mean something completely different if 'up' and 'cloud nine' don't go hand in hand with 'happy'. Language is peculiar like that. Acting as highways, the main metaphors of a given language continuously reconnect speakers with what they and their culture care about most. When we're looking at English and Te Reo, this is where it gets interesting; their main metaphors are polar opposites. They could not be more different.


Two of English's main metaphors are with spatial direction, and time as money.

Given there's always so much pressure on what to do, where to go, and the means to get there, it isn't surprising these two are in the forefront.

Directional metaphors include:

'she's on the rise,' 'he's on the up and up,' 'you can't bring them down', 'I never look back, it distracts from the now,' 'he's gone off the rails', 'she's lost her way,' 'he's down in the dumps,' 'she's on cloud nine' 'he's got his head in the clouds,' 'get your mind out of the gutter,' 'they're running me into the ground!' 'prices are skyrocketing!' 'I'm over the moon!' 'I'm under the weather,' 'I'm under pressure,' 'I'm over this work'

Time as money metaphors are interesting because they use the exact same language, so we're basically talking about two of the same thing. Among these are:

'what a waste of time,' 'I'm running out of time,' 'I've got time to spare,' 'time is money,' 'I'm gonna pay for that later,' 'that'll cost you,' 'I can't afford to spend that much time,' 'budget your time carefully.'


Two of Te Reo's main metaphors are with nature, and with people.

Metaphors with nature include:

Kaua e mate wheke, mate ururoa – don't die like an octopus, die like a hammerhead shark. E kore te patiki e hoki ki tōna puehu – the flounder does not return to its dust. Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko ahau – I am the river and the river is me. Ehara i te tī e wana ake – Man is not like the tī (cabbage tree), which renews itself. Ahakoa he iti, he pounamu – although it is small, it is greenstone (precious).

Metaphors with people include:

Rauru Kītahi – Rauru who speaks once (can be said of someone whose word always holds true). Ko te kete rukuruku a Whakakaotirangi – the very small basket of Whakakaotirangi (who brought the kumara over from Hawaiki to Aotearoa). Ko te mana koe o Tūpurupuru a Rākaihikuroa – you have the mana of Tūpurupuru (who was the grandson of paramount chief Kahungunu). Kia rangatira te tū – may your standing be that of a chief.

When we begin to look at English and Te Reo in this way, it's easier to see why Māori and Pākehā clash so violently on literally all environmentally-based issues like the Foreshore and Seabed claim, housing developments on Ihumātao, our rivers and the bottled water industry, water pollution, deep sea drilling, and commercial mining. What English and thus its speakers place value on, comes into direct opposition with what Te Reo and its speakers do; and yes, it's an uncomfortable truth. I grew up only speaking English until around 17 so I still place myself in this space as well. It isn't a case of demonising one language or one group of speakers and lauding another, it's about opening up fresh dialogue around an existing discussion and moving ourselves forward.

Rather than looking at Te Reo from a political, historical, or racial lens, instead, let's look at it as a language that has a lot to give future generations and their ability to care for each other and the environment. We need that. Economic, governmental and corporate spheres informed by an environmentally and socially aware generation would be nothing short of unstoppable. More importantly,  can we risk not imparting an environmentally and socially-conscious language with everything that's going on? Irrespective of our own individual stances on Te Reo in schools, most if not all of us can agree that people and the environment are suffering a lot right now in New Zealand. Mounting against us are the highest teen suicide rates in the developed world, a mental health system failing people in need and over-working staff, high domestic violence and sexual abuse/assault rates, poverty widespread and affecting hundreds of thousands, and an environment that's dying because of the amount of rubbish we put into it every single day.

Te Reo-9.jpg
"Language-wise, the root problem stems from English placing more value on money and direction than on people and the environment"

Among other contributing factors, English alone clearly isn't doing the best job for our people or we would have come up with more sustainable, long-term solutions by now. Language-wise, the root problem stems from English placing more value on money and direction than on people and the environment, when what we really need is a language that does the opposite; Te Reo. Together they'd give bilingual speakers the ability to appreciate, understand, enjoy and move between two value systems with an equal awareness of each ones' importance in its own right. This does lead to the question of should Te Reo be compulsory and if so, until what age? Many have given their thoughts. I won't answer that question for you, but think back to a skill or hobby you wish your parents had gotten you into and made you stick with; we all have one. Maybe it was riding horses, learning to play an instrument, motocross, painting, or even growing up with another language. Imagine how it would have influenced who you've become, and how differently that may have been from who you are now. At the end of the day, if there's not enough exposure in the first place, there's no basis for us to be able to make an informed decision on whether or not we'd like it, on whether or not it'd be worth learning. Same with Te Reo. All we know right now is it not being compulsory. And if learning Te Reo is explained in this way – as a language that will empower us to value and care for the environment and people better – it's far more likely to spur on young speakers rather than just saying 'it's compulsory, you have to.'

"We have Te Reo and enough Te Reo teachers to start somewhere; the question isn't can we? it's will we?"

If Te Reo were to become a core subject in schools, yes, there are a lot of questions that need answers. Some have already found them and acted, with two of Aotearoa's most well respected schools – Auckland Grammar and Christ's College, among others now – championing this shift. English and Te Reo may value opposite things, but they will always be what we make of them, whether as an opportunity to grow together, an ever-present tension dividing us, or something else. At the very least, if there is division, we have a better understanding now of where it comes from. Going back to the Māori saying, ko te kete rukuruku a Whakakaotirangi – the very small basket of Whakakaotirangi, she only had a small basket of kūmara, but with time it has become plentiful throughout our land. We have Te Reo and enough Te Reo teachers to start somewhere; the question isn't can we?, it's will we?


Should Te Reo be compulsory in schools?

You decide.

Ngā mihi e hoa mā,



Thanks to Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ngā Mokopuna



Trinity Thompson-Browne: @trin_tb



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