Talking Points

Why language diversity is New Zealand’s opportunity to shine

More than 160 languages are spoken in New Zealand – let that sink in. It’s an impressive diversity of human cultures for such a small population. To give you some perspective, 430 languages are spoken in the US, whose population (nearly 330 million) is 66 times that of New Zealand’s.

It’s enough to make Aotearoa, in its own small but fierce way, one of the cradles of multi-culturalism. And it’s something worth protecting.

Official languages by country (source: Wikipedia)

Globalisation is a balancing act

Just like animal species, languages evolve all the time, and as many as 43% of all 6,000 languages spoken around the world are endangered, with one language disappearing every fortnight.

It’s a sobering fact, especially because each language is so much more than just a communication device: as Ziena Jalil pointed out in her beautiful piece for, “with it we lose an entire culture, traditions, knowledge, history, and diversity of thought.”

While there’s no denying that English is the international lingua franca of the world, allowing us all to connect with one another despite our differences, it’s also threatening the long-term survival of minority languages and cultures.

Is mindful integration the solution? As Jalil noted, there are heartening signs that awareness is growing. Last year, for instance, some Maori MPs made their maiden speeches in Te Reo. It was a significant step towards inclusiveness and empowerment.

And if New Zealand is ready to seize its opportunity to lead the way forward, then maybe revamping the education system is a step in that direction.

A strategy for languages in multilingual Aotearoa

In 2018, the Auckland Languages Strategy Working Group broached the subject in great detail. Their proposed 2019-2033 strategy looks at how teaching a diversity of languages in school, beginning with Te Reo Maori, can benefit New Zealand socially, culturally, and economically.

The premise is that, while more and more secondary students are learning languages as a subject (+18.5% between 2008 and 2018), “there is also a decrease in the number of students continuing to use and learn their own family heritage languages.”

And yet, the Working Group highlights, the benefits of learning and using languages are wide and far-reaching. It helps students boost their identity, inclusion, and wellbeing. It creates greater family cohesion. And it benefits New Zealand at large in a number of ways – including national identity, tourism, and trade.

So there’s an argument for a more inclusive education system – one that doesn’t inadvertently push multilingual speakers into becoming monolingual. Because multilingualism isn’t a distraction; it can be a source of strength and opportunity for individuals and the society alike.

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