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New Zealand Language Teachers' and University Language Teachers' Conference

Issue date: 
Monday, 1 July 1996
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen.

I resist the Papal precedent and in our own languages say simply good evening and greetings - tena kotou, tena kotou, tena kotou katoa.

I had the very great privilege of attending a school where languages were all important - if you learn languages, we were told, you will be all the better prepared to go on to become a scientist or a plumber or whatever. So my intellectual food was a diet of English, French, Latin, German; and I count my French master A.N.B. McAloon as one of the strongest formative influences in my life. But I should not forget Professor Boyd Wilson and Frankie Huntingdon, who steered me through French III.

So it will not surprise you that it was with the greatest pleasure that I received the invitation to open this Conference; nor will it surprise you to hear me affirm what I know you are all convinced of - that you, New Zealand's school and university international language teachers, have a hugely-valuable contribution to make to the life, and to the way of life, of our country.

Our English inheritance has not always encouraged that view. Tom Stoppard had one of his characters say about another, that "It has never occurred to [him] that one foreign language can be translated into another. He assumes that every strange tongue exists only by virtue of its not being English." We of course know better. Indeed we know the intellectual stimulation of another language.

As someone once said, "Waiting for the German verb is surely the ultimate thrill." Actually, should he not have said, "The German verb the ultimate thrill waiting for is?" And what of the thrill of mastering Chinese, or the intricacies of Kanji; or the intellectual stimulus of Latin or Greek..

All languages are passports, but of course they are not simply the sort of passports that let you visit particular geographical locations. Much more importantly, they admit you to a cultural 'milieu.' With even some knowledge of a language other than your own native tongue, you are no longer one-eyed, so to speak, when you view the world; or one-eared, to express it a different way, when you listen to people of other cultures. A second or a third language permits you to see with binocular vision, or hear a stereo reproduction, of the world around you - your world simply has greater depth.

And even my choice of that word 'milieu,' helps to make this point. There's a shade of meaning there, that comes across with the French term, that doesn't have a precise English equivalent. In another language, in other words, you can often think different thoughts.

Translations can supply outlines but they will often omit much content. There's a report of something that the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston - he of Palmerston North fame - once said when he was told that there was no English equivalent to the French word "sensibilit." "Yes, we have," he harrumphed. "Humbug." There's a negative illustration of the point I'm trying to make, if ever there was one.

So, knowledge of - or better yet, fluency in - more than one language is the foundation of a true education. Perhaps you can be 'reasonably' well-educated without speaking anything other than your native tongue. But on the other hand, 'reasonably' well-educated is not a particularly high standard. And only a truly excellent education ensures that students progress beyond being apprentice thinkers all their lives, to become the masters of their own ideas.

Another point: even a brief exposure to another system of thought, as expressed in another language, enriches your own understanding of your native tongue so much, that it transforms it as a means of communication. Because how can you communicate exactly, unless you comprehend the depths of meaning of the words you are using, unless you are able to look beneath the surface definitions?

That however can be deceptive. The other day I became an honorary member of a certain services organisation. There was a little ceremony, which was reported in the organisation's newsletter as one in which I was 'induced.' Knowledge of Latin would not have helped that writer because both words are derived from the same Latin root. The point of course is that knowledge of another language is of limited value if we do not have a sound knowledge of our own.

There is also the argument for the teaching of international languages, the extremely pragmatic reason, that if you know another person's language you might be able to sell him or her something. Some may say, what a base motive for learning Chinese, say, or German. But a language is not a one-dimensional tool. Actually, I agree that learning a tongue to use it only as a marketing tool, would be a rather lowest-common-denominator sort of approach. But I don't believe that ever turns out to be the sole use to which a second or third language is ever, and indeed, can ever, be put. Learning another language requires that some alternative views of the world are also gained - such alternative views are inevitable, no matter that the ostensible purpose might originally have been somewhat utilitarian.

So, Lord Palmerston's doubts notwithstanding, I imagine that most people believe there are benefits to those individuals who know more than one language. Yet there are also public benefits, advantages to whole countries, if their citizens can talk to people of other cultures in their own tongues. Language is a passport, once again; and a diplomatic passport at that. When citizens of one country can talk to and be understood by the citizens of another, then begins the building of bridges between countries. Only with the additional language, can the chances of talking right past a person from another culture be reduced.

Speaking someone else's language is the most basic reassurance it is possible to give someone from a different cultural background that their voice will be heard, their points of view acknowledged, their thinking about the world placed in its proper context.

This is partly why New Zealanders have a particular responsibility towards the Maori language. Quite rightly your policy objectives stress proficiency in a LOTEM - a language other than English or Maori. The Maori language is not a substitute for a foreign language. But neither is a foreign language a substitute for Maori. The Maori language has a quite different significance.

It is of course an official language, but it is much more than that - it is a Taonga, at the very heart of Maori culture and identity and for that reason alone it must be preserved and fostered. Those who inherit the tradition and the culture should be given every opportunity to become proficient in it. The Maori Language Act declares this to be a Treaty obligation. More than that, I believe we all have an obligation to appreciate the language, to pronounce it properly, to learn it a little, or at least to understand something of the spiritual, the ceremonial and the cultural significance of the context in which we so often hear the language spoken.

So I am delighted to be here to help support your claim, to all New Zealanders, that what you do is important. That the teaching of French, Japanese, Modern Standard Chinese, German, Spanish, unfortunately little Latin and less Greek, and of course, Maori - really matters. And I must not overlook the teaching of English as a second language, also represented here.

So, without further ado, I am delighted to declare this conference of the combined New Zealand Association of Language Teachers and the Association of University Language Teachers, officially open. I see you have a full programme, and I wish you every success with it.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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