Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Both ways now

To spend a week in Montreal, as I just have, is to be exposed to the stimulus of a great city where two major languages are in common and equal use. Everybody, it seems, speaks both French and English. French is more conspicuous—it's the language of the Quebec provincial parliament and most media—but all public signs are in both languages, and most people we met seemed to have no trouble switching between the two. After a few days, it's impossible for an English-speaker not to start picking up a bit of French and enjoying the way that any new language opens up your mind or at least lifts it out of its usual monolingual rut. You see the world differently through another tongue, as it were; that tongue becomes a third eye. But quite apart from one's personal linguistic potential, the best thing about public bilingualism is that it honours, celebrates and gives equal value to both languages. Imagine, then, what a terrific shot in the arm it would be for New Zealand if Maori had equal status with English. Imagine if it had to be taught in all schools at all levels, no argument. Imagine if articulacy in both languages became a de facto requirement of electability for politicians. Not just in Quebec but in Canadian politics as a whole it's becoming more and more necessary, if you want to win public office, to be bilingual. It remains deeply dismaying that for all the progress that has been made on Treaty issues over the past 25 years, virtually no Pakeha MPs can speak Maori. So I completely agree with Jeffrey Paparoa Holman when he urges all New Zealanders to learn te reo, as he has, and I'd go further in urging political parties to push for total bilingualism. It would be a huge step, if not the deciding step, towards genuine equality for Maori. 'If te reo Maori is to survive,' Holman says, 'then what happens in Maori has to matter as much as what happens in English.' I would say, equally, if what happens in Maori is to survive, then te reo must matter as much as English. An impossible dream, you say? Not so; nor does it require a revolution. Fifty years ago public life in Quebec was dominated by the English language. Everything began to change with the election in 1976 of the Parti QuebeƧois, which passed legislation promoting the primacy of French. It was all done democratically, and today, as I say, French is officially No 1: but English is just as valid and relevant, and Montreal anyway thrives on not being a monoculture. In all essential respects New Zealand, alas, still is one. That can change.

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