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Dear Mr Witherow,
Today I read your opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times, entitled Haere mai? Everything is far from ka pai! I would like to thank you for providing me with some insight into how it is that your experience of the linguistic vicissitudes of living in Aotearoa makes you feel. It was an illuminating piece, and a valuable lesson for all of us who are compelled to navigate the complexities of living in a multilingual community. I would like to offer for your consideration experiences and observations made throughout the course of my own life, upon the subject of which you write.
In my first year of high school in Otautahi (Christchurch, if you prefer) I was offered the options of learning French, German, or Maori. My mother had earlier told me that she and my father wanted me to learn Maori. Now, Mr Witherow, I didn’t want to learn Maori, rather I wanted to learn how to enunciate the sensuous vowels of the French. Although, subsequently I’ve learned that my accent tends to mutilate that beautiful language. However, I digress. On my first day of classes, when the teacher came around and asked her students to indicate which language it was that we wanted to learn at school, I marked down, French. I was delighted that I would soon be speaking the language of Rimbaud and De Beauvoir, alas, my desire was soon to be thwarted, though, as you will see later, well-served in its being so. That afternoon after school, and sitting around the dinner table, my mother asked me which language I had chosen and, somewhat sheepishly, I replied, French. The conversation which I had with my parents that evening was an instructive lesson in humility and imagination, though one which doesn’t bear an exegesis here. The following day at school I reluctantly changed my language option to Maori.
My first classes in Maori were also instructive, and in more than one sense. I had unwillingly, and unwittingly, opened the door to a community which welcomed me with arms wider and grander than the world which I had hitherto known. Over the weeks and months learning Maori I witnessed the grace and generosity of the people who had chosen to teach that language and those who had chosen to study it. Every language session was a lesson in hospitality, dynamism, and imagination. Here was I, welcomed into a community which I had had no reason to expect consideration from, and yet it was given without question. After my first year of learning Maori I signed up for a second year, and this time there were no difficult conversations around the dinner table, because I wanted to be a part of our community.
All these years later and now living in London studying Ancient Greek, I understand that when two languages meet those learning them have the opportunity to become more dynamic and more articulate. Most importantly, in the case of living languages, the cultures which have borne each language begin to understand one another. Why do they do this? Because they recognise in one another their mutual reflections, and together they take the human experience to one that is ever more eloquent. I am sure, Mr Witherow, that you know what is a hippopotamus. Well, that word comes from two words in Ancient Greek which collocation translates into English as river-horse. Now imagine yourself enjoying a day’s fishing, which I believe you are wont to do, and knowing what a rainbow-girdled fish might be called in Maori, and how it is that the knowing of that will enrich your own world. I urge you, when you next step into a river in your country, the one which you share with others, and when you see that fish flashing beneath the ancient water, think about how others may see it and how enriching is the understanding of that small but wondrously cosmological detail. When we break linguistic bread together we enrich ourselves and our interlocutors, and to close up the drawbridge to one’s mind benefits no one. Finally, I leave you with a soupcon of Latin, to which our English language is indebted - et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.
King’s College London