Around 1100 early childhood centres around the country offered Te Reo Māori, as well as English, as the language of communication at least part of the time in 2008-09, according to the Ministry of Education. The ministry’s Annual Census of ECE shows a 10 percent lift in the number of mainstream’ centres using Māori for 12-80 percent of teaching contact time.

As well, the trend of falling numbers of children in kōhanga reo appears to have stabilised. Teachers say the figures reflect a growing confidence with and enthusiasm for Te Reo Māori by early childhood teachers. In all, around 30,000 children out of a total 181,000 early childhood enrolments were in some kind of Māori-English bilingual education.

Around 9590 were in immersion, nearly all at kōhanga reo, with most of the remainder attending education and care centres. “Teachers in training are getting more education about Te Reo Māori and this is building their confidence” says NZEI Te Riu Roa vice-president Judith Nowotarski, head teacher at Hawera Kindergarten. “I also think centres are becoming more responsive to Māori families who want to use them. And many non-Māori enjoy and value that their children have this opportunity.” Even better, she says, “This teaching is coming with a lot of passion and commitment – it’s not about teachers thinking they must’ or should’ do it, it’s much deeper and authentic and richer than that.” Influential research in the early 2000s by Jenny Ritchie and Cheryl Rau is suggested as underpinning the trend.

Their two reports, Whakawhanaungatanga and Te Puāwaitanga (see www.tlri.org.nz) are widely used in teacher training, and spell out how teachers can make the journey toward creating centres that are both welcoming to Māori families and celebrate and practice Te Reo Māori and tikanga Māori.

“It’s just fabulous to see that trend” says Dr Jenny Ritchie, Associate Professor, Early Childhood Education, at Unitec. “It just shows the responsiveness of the sector to our community.”

Jenny cites recent neurological research showing that different cultural groups use different parts of their brain to solve the same problems. “It’s fascinating to watch those fully bilingual children, they’re really doing brain gymnastics.” (See www.newsweek.com/id/233778) This trend to English-Te Reo bilingualism is complemented by increasing numbers of Pasifika, Asian and other children arriving into the school system with rich linguistic heritages.

Key Points

  • The number of early childhood centres offering bilingual teaching has
  • jumped by 10 percent
  • Educators say teachers are more confident to use te reo Māori and to welcome Māori families, and non-Māori families value this opportunity
  • But national standards’ emphasis on English literacy poses a risk

Impulse control

Besides cognitive advantages, research also suggests that bilingual children have better impulse control than monolingual children. The theory is that bilingual children are constantly sorting out extra perceptual information. For every object and action they have two words, one in each language, they could use. However, they need to choose which one to use based on the context they are in and the rules that apply to that context. This ability enhances the ability of bilinguals to selectively pay attention to appropriate information and inhibit focusing on other information. Through a card-sort task, research showed that this does seem to be the case.

Some provisos

But it is a fragile trend, and many have concerns about whether or not it will take hold in a changing climate. National standards, for example, with its emphasis on English literacy may prove very challenging for children learning in two or even three languages. Southern Asian children,for example, may speak English, Hindi and a home language. “I like to talk about literacies. With national standards, we may go back to talking about just one literacy -that would be dangerous,” says Dr Jenny Ritchie.

Others say teaching bilingualism is complicated, and that rich vocabularies are necessary in both languages, or all learning can suffer.

A Salvation Army report by Alan Johnson notes that Māori enrolment in any form of early childhood education actually dropped between 2005 and 2008, and he attributes this to the growing privatisation of the sector, with private providers lacking the time or inclination to engage with Māori families. There is hope, however, that those who do receive bilingual education in early education will be supported at primary school level.

An NZEI survey of 101 teachers found that 86 percent believed that children with prior knowledge of Te Reo would be able to develop those skills at their school. Jenny Ritchie says this is crucial. “If that rich dual heritage is not reinforced at primary and secondary, I don’t think they’ll retain the learning, the seed won’t germinate.”

The Gisborne drawcard

Y-Tamariki opened in Kaiti, Gisborne, two years ago, as a bilingual centre with te reo Māori spoken for 50 percent of teaching time. The roll stands at 76 with ten kaiako, nine of whom are qualified early childhood teachers. The waiting list is 168. Children come from an incredible range of backgrounds, including Māori, Pakeha, Danish, British, Indonesian, Philipino, Samoan, Tongan and South African. “Because we had the land to build a centre in Kaiti, we completed a needs analysis survey. The largest percentage of responses wanted a full-day, bilingual education and care centre” says Karla Tardieu, a manager at Gisborne YMCA. She says the centre emphasises qualified staff and “they are supported by whānau, hapa, iwi and community members who are fluent in te ao Māori”.

Parent Trudy Wigglesworth says, “We chose Y-Tamariki because we liked that the centre was bilingual and I was interested in learning more about the Māori culture and language myself.” She sees benefits for her son in growing up with the knowledge, respect and understanding of another culture. “And with whatever career path he may take in the future, I’m sure this will be a great advantage to him.” Rick and Claudia Paenga say their son absolutely loves going to the Y-Tamariki. “Every day we are grateful to Y-Tamariki for the time, manaaki, tautoko and āwhi the centre gives to our son. “The centre provides the basis for pre-school children to be exposed to the best of both worlds.”