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Is language communication?

By Trevor Ammundsen.

A Scouse gentleman, (someone from Liverpool) and I use that word quite generously, bailed me up the other day to demand, “that I write about all of that Maori on the news, you can’t understand it, you never know what is going on!” I had to ask him to repeat himself as I had trouble understanding his accent, which he did. A number of other people, however, have voiced similar sentiments, so I thought it was an issue worth writing about.

We have three official languages in this country, English, Maori and Sign Language. I have a granddaughter who uses Sign Language because she is deaf. She also has Downs Syndrome, so the related learning difficulties mean she is only starting to think about forming words. She is, however, very coherent in sign language; if you see her raise two fingers you know it is time to leave her alone. I tend to think sign is more coherent than Scouse, but both are forms of communication; although I never have to ask my granddaughter to repeat herself.

We do not have a TV Station or TV News Broadcast that uses sign language as its basis for communication. The reason is quite simple; it would be boring for most viewers, hard to have enough sign specific content and probably not watched, as the deaf can easily read newspapers or online content for their daily news fix.

Broadcasting of the Maori language is well supported by people. A dedicated Maori Channel is available for viewers, funded by the taxpayers. On this channel there are News and Current Affairs programmes that use Maori as the dominant language, although articles are often featured using English, but with Maori subtitles. Many other programmes, well the hunting and cooking ones that I watch, use Maori as their dominant language but enough English is interspersed to enable me to follow what is going on. The balance seems to be right on the Maori Channel, although others may feel differently.

My ability to follow these programmes is aided by my knowledge of what you could call a pidgin language, a mix of languages sometimes called New Zild. With New Zild, we accept that it is okay for people to bastardise English; for example, Cussie, Bro or youse fellas. Maori words are creeping into the English vernacular; kai, whanau, puku and so on. In a similar way, many English words have become part of the Maori vernacular, TV, wheels, pub are examples. This is the formation of New Zild.

While Maori academia may want Maori words for every English word I have yet to hear anybody, Maori or Kiwi, refer to Television as Pouaka Whakaata. I therefore have come to believe that the majority feel comfortable enough with New Zild.

Let us come back to the Scouser’s complaint about the News. One of our three languages, being Sign Language, is not really given any TV News output, they are forced to read the paper. Sign is unarguably the worst supported language in terms of Television News. The Maori language however is well supported with their dedicated channel and a growing influence in the general channels, TV1 and TV3. When you consider a report from the Ministry of Social Development states that 3.7% of the population could hold a conversation in Maori, this would suggest that traditional Maori language on Television is well supported by the Nation.

​This leaves us with the mainstream channels of TV1 and TV3, the source of the Scouser’s lament. The purpose of the News Programs on these channels is to convey the News in an understandable way to the vast majority of the population so why are these programmes getting an increasingly negative response. I think the answer lies with yet another Government intervention which has demanded that in response to the providing of significant taxpayer funding, these channels will significantly increase their use of the Maori language on news and other programmes. This has resulted in periods of absurdity when announcers such as the TVI Sports Announcer feel the need to have an extremely long opening discourse which possibly 3.7% of us understand (no subtitles), but only if they are watching. This discourse does give us the opportunity to make a cup of tea however.

What the Government and the TV Management are forgetting is their purpose and their audience. Programme makers should focus on English as the official language of significance to the masses; possibly with Maori and Sign sub-titles, as English is the best way to communicate with the vast majority of our country, the other 96.3%. It would be helpful if they were to also revert to using the official place names, both English and Maori, rather than unofficial Maori ones., After all, who agreed on that southern Maori name for the Auckland region? As a North Shore resident, I always felt Te Kawerau o Maki or Te Whenua Roa o Kahu were better contenders, but were we asked?

And finally with a brush up course for the news readers on how to communicate using English and New Zild, we could all relax and watch the latest political stuff-ups of the day.

Caption: This week is New Zealand Sign Language week.


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