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Saving endangered languages, one child at a time

An initiative aimed at teaching preschoolers to speak Maori is catching on worldwide

A Samoan "language nest" -- A'oga Fa'a Samoa -- in central Auckland (Photo by Eryn Wilson)

There was a time when I could speak -- or rather, chant -- Latin. We altar boys needed it then; but now, if Latin is not quite dead, it is on life support, like many of the world's 6,900 languages.

Some 60% to 90% could be extinct in a century, with UNESCO's "Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger" listing 2,464 at risk. In the U.S., 192 are nearing their end. In China there are 144, in Australia 108, and in Japan eight. The U.K. has 11 tongues facing extinction, including Manx, Cornish and Scots.

The struggle is acute in the South Pacific, where populations are small and languages are many -- about 20% of all known languages. Papua New Guinea's 820 languages make up nearly 12% of the global total, but its population accounts for only 0.1% of the world's people. Some 98 of its languages are in trouble. Vanuatu has 115 languages among 265,000 people; 46 are disappearing.

With English and French overwhelming local languages, it is feared that new fiber-optic cables weaving ashore across the lagoons, bringing high-speed internet, will deliver a linguistic coup de grace.

For New Zealand's Maori -- a Polynesian people numbering 712,000 in 2015, according to the government -- this is unacceptable. "If the language disappears, people will be lost, as dead as the moa," a Maori expression says, referring to New Zealand's long-extinct giant land bird.

Their solution is drawing world attention. Maori have come up with Te Kohanga Reo, or "language nests," for pre-school children. They are immersed in the language, with elders and parents, in state and privately funded centers. When they started in 1982 in Wainuiomata, near Wellington, fewer than 5% of Maori schoolchildren were fluent in Maori. Since then 60,000 children have been through 460 kohanga, moving on to Maori primary, secondary and post-secondary schools.

KEY INGREDIENT New Zealand's education ministry describes access to the Maori language as a key ingredient of the education system. It says 179,825 students, or 22.8% of the total, are learning in and through Maori, noting: "The proportion of all students participating in Maori language in education has increased steadily each year since 2010."

There are critics. Former politician and central banker Don Brash argues that, "learning to read and write good English would have much greater practical value for all children, including Maori children."

Former conservative MP Rodney Hide said it would be marvelous if children were fluent in Maori, "but it would come with a cost" of dropping something else. "We are selfish in wanting what's best for our children and we don't want them used to achieve some or other politically correct goal set by politicians eager simply to demonstrate their wonderfulness," he wrote.

The kohanga initiative has drawn interest from speakers of other threatened languages. Canada's Mohawk community in Quebec has created its own kohanga and found that improved Mohawk language use did not reduce English fluency; rather it enhanced children's overall skills.

Maori singer Moana Maniapoto wrote of arriving in the Finnish Arctic town of Inari, believing she was among the first Maori to go there. Local Sami hosts immediately asked if she wanted to see their kohanga, being used to save a language spoken by 370 people. "Newsflash to right-wingers: Maori are globally hot, even if we are locally not," Maniapoto wrote.

Pacific Island communities are following. That is why my 18-month-old granddaughter attends a Samoan equivalent -- A'oga Fa'a Samoa. For this grandfather, a pakeha -- the Maori word for non-Maori New Zealanders -- that illustrates how far this once monolingual country has sailed.

It is hard to believe that there was uproar in New Zealand in 1999 when Hinewehi Mohi sang the national anthem in Maori at a Rugby World Cup game in England. After the controversy faded, people grew to like the distinctive sound; the anthem always starts with a Maori verse.

Maori defines New Zealand and the risk of losing it recalls the words of the late Ken Hale, a linguistics teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Language was the intellectual wealth of its people, he said, and "losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."

Michael Field is a New Zealand-based contributor to the Nikkei Asian Review.

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