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.