Saturday, November 12, 2022

Greg Newbold: English Literacy Essential

The following is an unpublished letter written by Greg Newbold to the Bay of Plenty Times.

In his article, 'Literacy in NZ Does Not Stop at English' (BOP Times 24 August), John MacDonald looks forward to a time when all schools will teach Maori language as a core subject alongside English. He envisages a future where competence in te reo will be essential at all levels in the public sector and even in private areas such as law, medicine and engineering. And he applauds it.

As someone who has just finished a 32-year lecturing career at Canterbury University, I can see some major problems with this proposal.

1. Teaching 64,000 teachers how to speak Maori properly, and then providing the resources (language labs, etc) for them to instruct 750,000 children to speak the language would be immensely time consuming and expensive. I spent two years studying Maori at university level and there is no way that I would consider myself a competent Maori speaker. Proficiency in any language takes years of study and constant immersion in the culture it pertains to. Dilettantism leads to corruption of the language.

2. If all teachers were forced to become fully competent in Maori, and then to impart that skill in the classroom, it would have to take place at the expense of other subjects. The recent drop in numeracy and English literacy standards of school leavers in New Zealand has been well publicised. A recent study found that 40 percent of students who get NCEA level 2 are not functionally literate (or numerate). This was a problem I faced constantly at the University of Canterbury, where even 2nd and 3rd year students did not understand the basics of English grammar and could not even put proper sentences together. Diverting time away from learning essential English literacy skills will only confound this problem. It is better for students to be able to speak and write at least one language well, than two languages badly.

3. New Zealand is not a bi-cultural nation, it is multi-cultural. There are six major ethnic groups in New Zealand and 18 major languages are spoken. Most speakers of non-English languages in this country are already bi-lingual. If they wish their children also to be enriched by bilingualism, they should be free to select a second language of their choice. Often it will be the language of the culture they belong to, not that of the culture of somebody else.

4. New Zealand is a small nation tucked away at the Southern extremity of the Pacific Ocean. As such we are increasingly dependent on international contacts in trade, politics and popular culture. In terms of career advantages, competency in the languages of our major trading partners and political allies is therefore essential. In order of importance these languages are English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian. Competency in Maori provides no career advantages on the global stage.

5. New Zealand's skills shortages in areas like health, teaching, engineering and so on are well known. Requiring knowledge of te reo as an essential prerequisite to these areas of employment would inevitably stifle the influx of essential workers to this country and worsen our skills deficits. Alternatively if, in the future, knowledge of te reo could automatically push a candidate to the front of a job queue, as John MacDonald suggests should happen, highly qualified engineers, medical specialists, economists and managers would be shunted aside by people whose only real qualification was proficiency in Maori. The result would be institutionalised dumbing-down and systemic incompetency at high levels. This would be a disaster for our country.

New Zealand's education system is certainly in a state of crisis and we face chronic shortages in essential skills areas, but mandating the teaching of Maori in schools will do nothing to solve the problem.

Greg Newbold, Professor Emeritus, University of Canterbury, is the author of several books covering criminal justice, criminology and social history. This article was first published HERE


Doug Longmire said...

Very Well stated, Greg.
You have summed it up very clearly and accurately.
Compulsory learning Maori would, of course, have to mean another subject not being studied. This can only result in the further dumbing down of our students.

AlanG said...

The John MacDonalds of this world walk among us. I wonder how many there are. Scary how detached from reality some people are, yet he must have at least half a brain as he was able to write successfully.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know when english will be seen here as a racist language or even banned altogether. English is not even an official language of nz. Only maori and sign language are official. The govt are actively discouraging new immigrants and shuttung up shop for democracy or so- called "westminster" values, so my guess is that this is all part of the plan, to remove new zealand and introduce a new poor tribal ethno state called aotearoa.

Robert Arthur said...

Newbold is not your typical modern non maths/physics/engineering/science academic. He uses now quaint straight English as did the likes of Churchill. A refreshing change from the obtuse coded tertiary spreak now characteristic of so many branches of universities and infiltrated into Council and govt documents, and especially any alluding to matters maori. Very many writings today require acute concentration or several reads to get the drift.

David Lillis said...

For what it's worth - my own pedigree includes five years as a secondary teacher, including several schools with significant Maori and Pacific enrolments; five years as education researcher and statistician, and six years as academic manager at a tertiary, degree-granting institution, again with significant Maori and Pacific enrolments.

I agree with every detail of Professor Newbold's article.

David Lillis

Gaynor Chapman said...

With reference to number(2)of your points,I think more people should be aware of the reason for such appalling literacy results. More time spent on students being taught with the present deeply flawed methods of reading and writing instruction will not make an improvement. Not until schools have more direct and explicit methods of teaching these subjects will there be any improvements in low achieving as well as higher achieving students. These direct methods have been proved by research to be more effective. Hence there would actually be time to lean Maori.

Anonymous said...

Well said and all the people I know agree but we are now too frightened to say anything about Māori in any way because we get labeled as racist or radicals. How do we get a voice and not lose our jobs?

Lesley Stephenson said...

Point 5 is already happening.

Don said...

If people want to study Maori of their own volition good on them. But why must the majority of the population who have no interest in it have it forced upon them? For most of us it is a waste of time. I see no valid reason why this is happening. Names of govt.departments, greetings, signposts, sprinkling Maori words through English writings, all of this has gone from tiresome to more than annoying. It would have my support if only I could be convinced that there is a positive reason for it.

Sue Pockett said...

The literacy and numeracy problem Greg mentions can be laid squarely at the door of certain quietly introduced changes in The New Zealand Curriculum. This national document now completely ignores the traditional three Rs -- reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. Instead it talks about the need to impart five "key competencies", which are identified as "• Thinking • Relating to others • Using language, symbols and texts • Managing self and • Participating and contributing."

Is it any wonder that a 2020 UNICEF report says 64% of NZ fifteen year olds struggle with reading and basic maths? We no longer bother to teach such old-fashioned skills.

Empathic said...

Thanks Greg for this clear and important summary, and we're glad you are able to contribute politically again without fear of losing your job.

Aside from those in Maori immersion environments, most NZ pupils will end up speaking Manglish, the language we are now all being patronized with through mainstream media.

Your list of languages needed for trade missed out 'American'. But then, most NZ youth now speak a version of that.

Anonymous said...

NZ has an appalling record of truancy and it's getting worse not better, another "F" mark for Jacinda. The main reason reported is that the child sees nothing that interests them there. It would be interesting to see interviews with regular truants to see if teaching an additional language which is little use in NZ and no use at all out of it, will increase the likelihood of them attending more frequently. Surely it's a total waste of money to teach something that no-one wants to learn, but then when it comes to wasting money this govt gets straight A's

Malcolm said...

University job cuts horrify Union – outrage as AUT decides to ditch 170 academic positions.
Here is an extra from near the end of the column by Jamie Morton.
In response to a Herald question, an AUT spokesperson also confirmed the cuts wouldn’t affect Maori and Pasifika academic staff members.
“Throughout the considerations and proposed changes, AUT’s strengthened focus on advancing our Te Tiriti commitments and to reflecting the communities we serve will be sustained. These commitments will be embodied in a principle that the proposed changes will not have negative impacts on the proportion of AUT academic staff who are Maori and/or Pacific.”

Pat Smith said...

The only comments I can say are well written, well done, and oh so very true.