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New Zealand Leader Vows Daughter Will Learn Dying Maori Language

Category: Asia,World

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has pledged that her newborn daughter would grow up to learn both English and the country’s indigenous Maori language, which is battling for survival after years of decline.

Ms. Ardern’s first child, Neve Gayford, was born on June 21, and the prime minister returned to work last week after six weeks of parental leave. As one of only two modern world leaders to give birth while in office, each decision she makes about raising her daughter is being watched and discussed by a global audience.

In an interview on Monday with Maori Television, Ms. Ardern said that she “certainly” wants her daughter to speak Maori.

Maori, or “te reo Maori” as it is widely rendered in New Zealand, is one of the country’s three official languages — along with English and New Zealand Sign Language — but it is thought only about 125,000 of the country’s 4.7 million people, or about 2.5 percent, speak it.

Fears the language would die have prompted attempts by activists and politicians to revive it in recent years.

Ms. Ardern said learning the language was important for children “not only for what it does for their education, for what it does for their cognitive development, but actually because this is Aotearoa, New Zealand,” she said, using the country’s Maori name, which means “land of the long white cloud.”

Ms. Ardern said she had not yet decided whether her daughter would attend a kohanga reo, or full-immersion Maori preschool. Neither she nor her partner, Clarke Gayford, speak the language.

Ms. Ardern’s center-left Labour Party took power last October, and the prime minister has since called for Maori leaders to hold her government to account for its work on indigenous issues. Maori have higher child poverty rates and worse education and health outcomes than white New Zealanders.

Another Labour Party lawmaker, Willie Jackson, who is the associate minister of Maori development and an advocate for the language, lauded Ms. Ardern for using her status to promote bilingual education.

“When you have a language that’s on the verge of dying — and sadly with our language those types of predictions have been made — we need every type of positive strategy we can to resurrect it,” Mr. Jackson said. It “made my heart jump” to hear Ms. Ardern say her daughter would learn Maori, he added.

Ms. Ardern and Mr. Gayford, a former television host who has become a stay-at-home parent, gave their daughter a Maori middle name, Te Aroha, which is the name of Ms. Ardern’s hometown and means “love.” She said the indigenous choice was the “easiest part” of naming her daughter.

Referring to the many Maori names that iwi, or tribes, around New Zealand gifted to her child ahead of her daughter’s birth, Ms. Ardern said it was a “given” that she and Mr. Gayford “would somehow reflect in Neve’s name the generosity and kindness that was shown to her.”

Mr. Jackson, 57, the Labour Party lawmaker, said many Maori children of his generation were given English names by parents who no longer spoke Maori. Some young Maori were disciplined at school for speaking their indigenous tongue, he said.

“Having Maori names was very unsexy,” Mr. Jackson said. “That’s what we’ve gone through; hearing our language mispronounced, schools wouldn’t teach it.”

He added that anecdotally there seemed to be a new “hunger and thirst” for the language in recent years, with education providers reporting wait-lists for beginner Maori lessons. Last year, a Maori-language version of the Disney film Moana was released in New Zealand.

Ms. Ardern’s government intends to make Maori universally available in New Zealand schools by the year 2025. Some activists for the language say she should go further and make it compulsory, a proposition that has been the subject of heated national debate.

But Ms. Ardern said access to the language must be made widely available in schools before anything more was considered.

“At the moment we can’t offer that because we don’t have enough teachers,” she said of mandatory Maori classes.

She denied the goal of universal Maori language education was far-fetched.

“If we don’t have that ambition, then where will we be heading?” she said.


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