Ko te reo te taikura o te whakaaro mārama: Language is the key to understanding.

This whakatauki/proverb sums up my major learning from this week’s Adult and Community Education (ACE) Aotearoa conference in Wellington, which I have put into a story here. It’s not that I didn’t know this before; it is more that so much of what I heard and experienced reinforced the idea that language choices make a difference to outcomes.

The amount of reo Māori that was spoken throughout the conference is my first example. Not only were formal protocols followed, with pōwhiri, karakia and poroporoaki, but our MC, Kataraina Pipi, often spoke to the whole conference in Māori. We heard the music of the language, not just in single words or phrases or set introduction pieces, but language for communication purposes by a fluent and accomplished speaker. Further, there were others at the conference who could, and did, converse in Māori during informal conversations. The effect of hearing te reo Māori used as a preferred medium of communication was to create an atmosphere, for me at least, of being in a Māori (or Māori-friendly) environment. My position in such an environment is different to my usual surroundings where I am generally the experienced one. Here my basic grasp of te reo places me as a beginner, the apprentice, an outsider; but equally, because I do have some knowledge, this also marks me as a kiwi. It is humbling and useful to experience these sorts of environments. It makes a difference to how I feel, how I approach others – experiential learning.

The keynote speakers also reinforced for me the power of language. Russell Bishop recounted his recent experiences in Canada, amusing us by pointing out how students (mostly indigenous) who were displaying signs of boredom were variously labelled in different places as suffering from depression, foetal alcohol syndrome and other issues. Such labels appeared to divert attention from seeking other causes for such behaviour, for example the pedagogy being used. In these cases, the language being used was limiting the search for answers to the very real issues of engaging students. In contrast, keynote speakers Rajesh Tandon, and later Sarah Longbottom, both talked about the people they work with in strengths-based terms. Differences amongst people were valued by them, and this was obvious in the way these speakers chose their words. A beautiful example was Rajesh suggesting that it was better to prioritise “education for livelihoods” rather than “education for jobs”. Different nuance, and an important distinction.

After the first day when we all shared our stories, and in the telling affirming our viewpoint of valuing people and valuing education for its transformational potential, it was then a bit of a shock to hear officials from the Tertiary Education Commission and the Ministry of Education. It felt like they were talking a different language, and that language was expressing cultural viewpoints that did not resonate with us. The view was narrow, focused on education carried out in tertiary institutions almost exclusively, and the rhetoric was that of business and the market. We heard about investments, value for money, fiscal priorities, inputs/outputs/outcomes, NEETS and employment opportunities. Where were the people?? It was not a surprise that the officials, directed by government priorities to spend taxpayer money in responsible ways, were talking in such language. What was a surprise was that the officials seemed unaware of the impact of their words. When the Ministry official asked what the meeting thought of the goals of the Tertiary Education Strategy, she seem genuinely surprised that the response was quite negative. She tried to recover by suggesting that the intentions of the TES were the same as ours, only using different language. That brings me back to my point: te reo te taikura o te whakaaro mārama. If officials really wish to connect with the ACE sector, then they have to learn to speak our language, the language of making a difference to people wherever we find them in their lives at that point in time.

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