Growing up monolingual inspired academic to learn te reo

15 September 2017
Professor Stephen May
Professor Stephen May

An academic’s childhood growing up in a monolingual education system inspired him to learn te reo Māori as an adult, and to a research career in bilingualism.
Professor Stephen May will share his story and the importance of bilingualism and his 30 years work in bilingual/immersion education at the University of Auckland’s International Speaker Series in Whangārei next week.
Professor May is a Professor of Education in Te Puna Wānanga (School of Māori and Indigenous Education) at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work.
“One of the reasons (ironically) that I became interested in bilingualism and bilingual education, is my own lack of opportunity, growing up in Ōtautahi (Christchurch), for anything other than English-medium education,” he says.
The result for New Zealanders who speak English as a first language is that most end up growing up monolingual.
“The result is that we’re denied the opportunities and advantages associated with being bilingual. While I did learn te reo Māori as an adult, I have and will always be shaped by that lack of opportunity when I was young and that’s what I want to change for others.”
Professor May taught English as a second language in Bangladesh, later taking a teaching position at a multiethnic working-class high school in Wellington, Hutt Valley Memorial College.  There, under the mentorship of Head of Māori studies John Manuel (Ngāti Porou), he began learning the Māori language.

“Learning a new language as an adult is often a challenge and that was the case here as well. So, even years later, my receptive understanding of te reo Māori is much better than my speaking ability. That is also often a consequence of growing up in a monolingual environment.”
Professor May says one of the key disadvantages of monolingualism is that it’s not the norm internationally.
“Most of the world (75-80 percent) grow up bilingual or multilingual as a matter of course and so those who can only speak one language (even if it is English) are immediately at a disadvantage compared with others who are able to use a number of languages in different contexts, with different people, and for different purposes.”
He says that adding that to Aotearoa’s geographical isolation and we’re even more at risk of being left behind the rest of the world – particularly, in contexts like trade.
“It’s time we caught up with the rest of the world. We need to reap the benefits of bilingualism and so it makes sense, as a first port of call, that we do so by first learning te reo Māori – after all, it’s our language, spoken in this place, and part of who we are as New Zealanders, something that Māori language week is highlighting right now!”
Professor May says he also wants more parents to consider a bilingual education for their children, rather than making bad decisions based on mis-information.
Parents have lots to think about when they send their children to school, but increasingly more are taking bilingualism into account.
All parents want to make the best decisions for their children but one of the key issues with respect to Māori-medium education is a lack of information - and at times, just a lot of misinformation - about what it means to have your children in a bilingual or immersion program.
“Bilingual and immersion programs, like Māori-medium education, are highly effective but there’s a lot of scaremongering out there about them, and some widely held and very entrenched negative attitudes about bilingualism and bilingual education.”
In this lecture he will focus on what the research tells us – particularly, how and why bilingual education is so effective and what decisions parents/whānau can and should be making for their children if they want them to end up being bilingual.
Professor May will talk at the University of Auckland’s International Speaker Series, Whangarei Central Library at 6pm on Wednesday 20th September.
More information is available here.
Anna Kellett, Media Relations Adviser