Language Detours

After spending this long weekend on New Zealand's roads, I know that many of you must have been looking at the road signs and wondering “Why isn’t there more Maori language on them?”

Invest resources to improve road safety and capacity? NO! The important thing is prioritising the inclusion of more Maori language on signage.

That is certainly how our bureaucrats think.

Waka Kotahi – the New Zealand Transport Agency – is currently running a programme called He Tohu Huarahi Māori bilingual traffic signs programme with Te Mātāwai. This programme will see the rolling out of new road signage that preferences Te Reo Māori as the primary language with English relegated as the translation, sometimes in smaller font.

If you think New Zealanders need better, safer roads, and this should include signs that we all understand, use our submission tool to make your voice heard

Justifying their investment in this work, the Transport Agency says: 

“Waka Kotahi wants to contribute to having te reo Māori seen, heard and spoken wherever possible to continue the revitalisation of the language.”

When did this become part of the remit for a government transport agency? Will its next project be making sure the music we listen to in our cars is sufficiently diverse?

The very obvious truth is that language revitalisation is not in Waka Kotahi's remit. It's core purpose is:

“Our responsibility to contribute to an efficient, effective and safe land transport system in the public interest is set out in the Land Transport Management Act 2003.”

Te Reo Māori is unique to New Zealand and there is a long-running, concerted effort by our Government to preserve and revitalise it. However, there are dedicated funds and agencies for this.

It is frankly absurd for our Transport Agency to be focusing on cultural projects when there is so much for them to be doing that is central to their mission.

According to the 2018 census, only 4% of New Zealanders can hold a conversation about basic everyday things in Te Reo Maori. By prioritising an attempt (probably futile) to educate 96% of the population, in a language they don’t speak via road signage, Waka Kotahi is undermining its core responsibilities.

While bilingual signs may seem like a nice addition, every expenditure of public funds should be dedicated to the agency's primary objectives, rather than virtue signalling nice-to-haves.

Our Prime Minster even tried to assure us that this is not costing any extra money, it will just be when signs need replacing. Does he expect you to believe that they have not committed a massive investment in developing this idealistic project, and what about the cost of consulting and further development?

It is not the role of Waka Kotahi to try and navigate the sensitivities of culture and language. They more than have their hands full with the record number of complaints about potholes damaging cars they received last year and the immense damage caused by Cyclone Gabrielle.

Share my frustrations? Have your say here.

We are apparently to be educated into Te Reo Maori via these road signs - as we fly past at 100km per hour - but it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the ever-changing etiquette associated with the language and culture more generally. 

Just this week ACT asked for a legislative amendment to provide a clear definition of "mātauranga Māori" but it was voted down by Labour. The NZ Herald reported:

"Legal scholars argue rigid definitions fail to acknowledge flexibility of a Te Ao Māori worldview, and the fact elements of mātauranga evolve over time and are usually handed down via word of mouth”

In March this year, Lawyer Lynell Tuffery Huria declared it inappropriate for Maori to be included in the Oxford dictionary explaining her disapproval was because “we are just being more and more assimilated and that’s not what we want.”

We aren't allowed definitions to better understand the concepts and names being used by our Government departments and education system. Kiwis are expected to engage with Te Reo Maori but not too much. How is anyone to know what is the right thing to do?

Ultimately, our roads are not the appropriate place for language education. New Zealanders are entitled to clear, direct instructions and information in the language that the overwhelming majority of us speak.

Join us in telling the Government exactly that.

Let's keep our Government agencies accountable!