Kotahi Mano Kaika, Kotahi Mano Wawata (Learning an Endangered Language Part 9)

In part six eight of this series1 I complained about how Taiwanese indigenous languages are being taught more like dead languages than living ones.

This point was really hit home to me when I was discussing with another student that I would like to have better communicative competence. It took a long time for me to explain what I meant, and it slowly dawned on me that other students really had no expectation of being able to use the language in such a way.

So I was very happy that the Hualien Tribal College and the College of Indigenous Studies at NDHU were able to arrange for two Maori language activists, Hana O’Regan [PDF] and Megan Grace, both affiliated with the center for Māori and Pasifika studies at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, to come to Hualien and share their thoughts and experiences. Hana and Megan have a very different approach to language revitalization – one which emphasizes building a living language. For this reason the focus of their work is in homes, not (just) in the classroom.

From the South Island iwi of Ngāi Tahu, the variety of Maori Hana and Megan speak was erroneously considered extinct in 1979. In fact, the last elder native-speaker of the language died just a few years ago. But it was true that the language was severely endangered. In Hana’s family there had been no native-speakers of Maori for five generations (113 years). But today Hana speaks Maori to her children and they speak Maori to each other. Doing so isn’t easy. Because everyone in the family is bilingual in English, it would often be easier for them to use English instead of Maori. Yet they remain ever vigilant. Her children came with her to Taiwan and I only ever saw them speak English when speaking to non-Maori.

It has now been 13 years since they launched Kotahi Mano Kaika, Kotahi Mano Wawata.

This translates to 1000 Homes, 1000 Dreams and refers to the vision of having 1000 Ngai Tahu homes speaking Maori by the year 2025.

When she spoke, Hana admitted that they were overly ambitious when they first launched the program. They are still far from having 1000 homes. They made a mistake by thinking it would be enough to simply offer the resources for language learning and assume that there would be enough interest that the program would take off on its own. After a few years they switched focus to instead helping a few, highly dedicated, families start using Maori in the home. They provide materials and training to help these families learn the skills necessary to use the language in the home. (Hana, herself a Maori teacher, had found that the existing textbooks were of little use in the homes.) As a result of their efforts there are now about 50 children being raised as native-speakers of Southern Maori.

Hana and Megan spoke about the kind of training and resources families needed to begin using Maori in the home, as well as some of the principles underlying their approach to language revitalization. I’ve tried to quickly summarize some of the key points:

  • The language used in schools, between a teacher and a student, is not appropriate for the home. They needed to develop and model linguistic resources so that non-native-speakers could use Maori with their children. In doing so they focused on daily activities, such as bathing, nursing, cooking, or getting ready for bed.
  • Young people also need language that they can use with other young people. This might include “cursing” (although they tried to create curses that “sound good” and respect traditional culture).
  • They constantly need to coin new words. While traditionally many Maori had borrowed words using Maori pronunciations of foreign words, they worked hard to re-coin many of these loan words. For instance, “lightening-mind” for “computer.” (They even held workshops to coin new Maori idioms.)
  • They worked hard to create fun activities for all the families and children engaged in the program, so that the children’s fondest memories would be associated with Maori. This also helped encourage other people to join the program.
  • They emphasized that it is very hard to change the language you use with someone after you initially establish a relationship with that person. For this reason they try to create activities whereby people establish new relationships with their peers in Maori.
  • They also developed a map where you can find schools, businesses, and services with Maori speakers. Hana described driving past four markets in order to take her kids shopping at one where they could speak Maori. This also encourages the employment of Maori speakers.

The highlight of their visit (for me anyway) was a demonstration class they gave at the Tribal College. Readers of this blog are probably quite familiar with emersion language learning in which the target language is also the language of instruction, but it is still quite rare in rural Taiwan. (Although wealthy kids in urban areas can afford high-quality emersion English programs.) Whether studying English or indigenous languages, most language instruction here takes place in Chinese. So it was really great for me to see a roomful of teachers, government officials, and language activists having such a good time learning Maori without any translation whatsoever.

As inspiring as all this was, there are still a lot of obstacles for implementing these ideas in Taiwan. That’s one of the subjects of my ongoing research project, and something I hope to write more about sometime soon.

UPDATE: Thanks to DJ Hatfield, there is now a Chinese translation of this post.

UPDATE 4/17/2014: Title and series numbers updated.

  1. After we moved to the new site and restored our archives it became clear that I’d written more posts in this series than I had realized so the numbers are off. The full series can now be found here

3 thoughts on “Kotahi Mano Kaika, Kotahi Mano Wawata (Learning an Endangered Language Part 9)

  1. thanks for this post, kerim. i’m working on a piece on what i think is one of the central problems for learning endangered languages on taiwan, which turns out, ironically, to be identity politics. “language” tends to circulate in this sphere as a kind of symbol–i’m tempted to say–token of authentic diversity, leading to a stress on “language” as a cultural performance. thus, the actual roles for sowal no ‘amis are becoming constricted to (1) kimad at ritual events (i’m including political protests here), (2) songwriting, (3) cultural enrichment courses. the second, as shown in a recent work by paja faudree, _singing for the dead_, could be a catalyst for literacy in, and perhaps greater circulation of, endangered languages. however, these contexts seem to select for both an antiquarian approach and to an image of “language” as impermeable and, because only relevant to a traditional context of life in taitung or hualien, not something one would choose over or along with mandarin. at any rate, the piece i’m working on is actually a sound installation / poster piece–because FEL accepted futuru and me as a poster and not a paper session. As it turns out, the sound installation piece might be more interesting–and i’m hoping to mount it around taiwan next year, if all goes well

  2. and, btw–can i translate this post into mandarin for posting on fb? i feel guilty, though, that i cannot translate it into sowal no ‘amis

  3. DJ. Please do translate it! It would be much appreciated. I’d love to see your poster/sound piece. Maybe you can recreate it as a website? (Let me know if you need help with that.)

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