Koro Dewes
by Ken Arneson
2013-05-30 11:51

The Māori language, the language spoken by native New Zealanders, is a member of the Polynesian family of languages, along with other Pacific island languages such as Tahitian, Samoan and Hawaiian.

Back around the year 1900, a large majority of people of Māori descent spoke the Māori language, or “te reo”, as their first and native tongue. But then the New Zealand government decided that all schools should be taught in English, and the Māori language was not allowed to be spoken in the classroom. A generation later, when the children of that policy grew up, they were fully bilingual. But as most educational and economic opportunities were in English, many people of that generation spoke Māori to their older relatives, but English to their children. This next generation was also bilingual, but spoke English as their first language, and Māori only passively. As a result, in the third generation between 1950 and 1975, there began a rapid decline in the number of native Māori speakers, and the language appeared to be headed to extinction.

“…the ability to speak te reo amongst Māori children declined from 90 per cent in 1913 to 80 per cent in 1923 to 55 per cent in 1950 to 26 per cent in 1953–58 and to 5 per cent in 1975.”

Waitangi Tribual Report, 2011

Alarmed by the declining state of the Māori language, a movement arose in the 1960s and 1970s among the remaining native speakers to try to preserve and restore the language. At first, they faced a lot of resistance from the New Zealand government. As late as 1979, the New Zealand Minister of Māori Affairs, Ben Couch, said that he saw no need to take legislative steps to preserve the language. However, the movement persisted, and major advances were made in the 1980s. The Kohanga Reo movement brought Māori language instruction to preschoolers in 1982, followed three years later by Kura Kaupapa Māori, which created Māori-language primary schools, as well. They pushed for, and got, native-language broadcasts on TV. And finally, the Māori Language Act of 1987 brought official language status to the Māori language in New Zealand.

These measures brought some measure of success to growing and promoting the Māori language. For about 10-15 years, the decline of the language reversed, and populations of native speakers grew steadily for a time. However, sometime around the turn of the century the growth seemed to stall, and has in the last few years returned to a slow decline. There is more work to be done to keep the Māori language alive.

* * *

The Random Wikipedia of the day is the entry for Koro Dewes, a man who was a key figure in the struggle to promote the Māori language. Mr. Dewes, who lived from 1930 to 2010, did most of his advocacy for the language at the university level. He was a lecturer at both the University of Auckland and Victoria University of Wellington. At Wellington, he helped extend the course catalog so that students could get a degree in the Māori language studies. He was also the first person to submit a post-graduate thesis written in the Māori language without a translation.

Here is a news story on Mr. Dewes’ life, presented in the Māori language, of course, with English subtitles:

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