As a Kiwi I was surprised to read that as many as one in six Maori New Zealanders live in Australia. Paul Hamer, a Victoria University researcher*, has recently uncovered some pretty harrowing facts about the loss of Maori language amongst Australia’s Maori migrants. One of the main reasons cited for the loss of Maori language ability is that Maori immigrants are more easily assimilated. Add that to their high intermarriage rate and Te Reo Maori language skills are often quickly lost. Interestingly, Dutch was also cited as less well retained among Australia’s immigrants, while Lebanese-Arabic was one of the most retained mother-tongues.
The process of surrendering first language fluency whilst acquiring a new language is called “first language attrition”. The fight to maintain native language skills is just that — a conscious battle for many immigrants. In order to retain their first language, migrants have to use their mother tongue regularly, or risk the language of their adopted country taking over.
While language attrition may be a losing battle for many migrants, professional linguists are on the frontlines constantly fighting for retention and improvement in two (or more!) languages. This requires a steady engagement with resources in the relevant languages and an ongoing commitment to remain up-to-date with the latest colloquialisms and trends. Luckily the internet and the ease of international travel make it easier than it once was to wage war on language loss.
*The Impact on Te Reo Maori of Trans-Tasman Migration, Institute of Policy Studies Working Paper 10/11 (Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies)