Language weeks can create culture of acceptance

Issue: Volume 98, Number 17

Posted: 10 October 2019
Reference #: 1HA0JC

Language weeks in schools are an opportunity for students from different ethnic groups to be loud and proud about their cultural identities. If done well, they can foster diversity and inclusion in school communities.

Shaneel Lal, a youth MP and member of the Minister of Education’s Youth Advisory Group, asked his 8,000 followers on Instagram if language weeks at school are important to them. Many are from Pacific countries and the reply was a resounding ‘yes’ from 240 out of 246 respondents.

Shaneel says many young people from Pacific and Māori communities feel they have to assimilate to fit in when they are growing up in Aotearoa.

“The moment they start trying to fit in, they are looking for acceptance. When you do that, you start to conform and hide. So Pacific and Māori people felt they were hiding and their language week was where they could really be their authentic selves and come out loud and proud.

“They said, ‘As Pacific people, we stand on the shoulders of giants and we must carry our ancestors with us’. Language is a way for them to reconnect with their ancestors – it’s a powerful source of identity,” he says.

Language weeks are a way for students from different cultures to learn about their cultural history and reconnect with their ancestors and cultural heritage. One Pākehā student told Shaneel that he loves speaking te reo Māori and the language week was a good way to learn it. “He also said that learning little things like greetings makes it easier to understand someone’s background.”

Promoting diversity

Otahuhu College, where Shaneel was a student until the end of 2018, has 90 per cent Māori and Pacific students. He says language weeks at the school were inclusive and about promoting diversity. People from different ethnic groups could participate in language and cultural events as a way of educating themselves and their peers.

“For Fijian Language Week, our school was in a position to celebrate the language week in its most authentic way because we had a group of Fijian teachers who led a group of young people.”

Language weeks incorporated things like speeches in the language, cultural practices, art, food, performances and discussions about the cultural heritage and how it is relevant to New Zealand society today.

“For my school, language weeks weren’t a tokenistic thing. They were more about promoting diversity, being inclusive and giving everyone a chance to participate. So there were Tongan students who would perform in the Fijian Language Week and Fijian students who would perform in the Samoan and Tongan Language Weeks and Europeans performing in the Cook Island Language Week. We also had an English Language Week where the English department ran different competitions during the week, like a poetry writing competition.”

Some negative experiences

Students talked about some negative experiences of language weeks. “Where it happened in an ‘invasive’ way, students who felt forced to participate then made negative remarks about the culture/language,” says Shaneel.

“There were some instances where the wrong information was being shared, not by choice, but a lack of knowledge made students feel as if their culture was of less importance, or its significance was undermined.

“There was also mention of schools where language weeks were a way to tick boxes. I see how schools could turn a language week into a golden opportunity to transfigure their image as a diverse and accepting institution, instead of addressing the deep-rooted racism.”

Young people said language weeks were a way to educate teachers who aren’t confident in using te reo Māori or Pacific languages.

“They said language weeks were the only weeks where teachers actually made an effort to pronounce their name correctly.

Can I call you something else?

“We have an epidemic of ‘can I call you something else... can I call you something short because your name is too complicated?’ Young people said that just having their names pronounced correctly made them feel comfortable and they could get a sense of belonging in the school,” Shaneel says.

Young people said language weeks can create a culture of acceptance, which is important considering New Zealand’s high suicide rates.

“Bullying and discrimination is a leading cause for suicide, particularly with Māori and Pacific males, and what a lot of young people said is that language weeks create a culture of acceptance and understanding,” says Shaneel.

The culture of acceptance extends to many Pacific families who visit schools during language weeks to support their children.

“Language weeks are a really good way of bringing people into schools and having a connection with the teachers, because a big problem for the Pacific community is that our parents didn’t go through the same system and for those who did, they were failed. They don’t trust the system and they don’t want to connect with it, and they don’t feel confident.”

Decolonising the education system

Language weeks go a small way towards decolonising schools, Shaneel says.

“Our current education system is a product of the colonial institutions that were brought to New Zealand post-1840. I was discussing it with a Māori friend, and we feel that the system was made by white people for white people. That is why the system isn’t broken – it’s working perfectly – but just for the people it was made for.”

In 2014 Shaneel and his family emigrated from Fiji, where growing up with mixed Fijian and Indo-Fijian heritage wasn’t always easy. He says things are changing in New Zealand from a system that stigmatises and shows discrimination to Pacific and Māori, but they still experience racism and micro-aggressions.

“I have been told a couple of times ‘you are pretty smart for a coloured person’ or ‘you are pretty smart for someone who is an immigrant from the Pacific Islands; you speak well’. That is explicitly saying they don’t expect coloured people to be that smart.

“It’s about decolonising the system itself. Pacific, Māori and ethnic minorities are not looking for equality – we are looking for equity and that’s the only way we are going to establish a fair playing field,” he says.

Celebrating language weeks

The following language weeks are coming up:

  • Niue: 13—19 October
  • Tokelau: 27 October—2 November

What’s in a name?

Northcote College student Vinayak Verma has developed an app that allows students to voice record their names, which can then be accessed for correct pronunciation.

Vinayak was named after a Hindu god, Ganesh. He says it’s a sacred name but at school he goes by ‘Vinnie’ to make it easier for teachers and students.

Although this makes life simpler for others, it doesn’t help Vinayak and others who have names teachers are not familiar with.

“It’s important that names are pronounced correctly because it’s not just a name, it’s part of your culture,” Vinayak explains.

“To fit in, I feel I have to change my name, but I feel that I am a different person from who I am meant to be.”

Vinayak’s technology teacher suggested that he develop an app to help solve the issue and Pronounce is the result. The app allows students to voice record their names and upload to a cloud database, which can then be accessed to get the correct pronunciation.

The advantages of the app include boosting student confidence and making young people feel more identified in their social environment, Vinayak says.

The app can be found at

Once a school is on the homepage database list,  teachers and students can click on their school, then register and click through to speak their names into the database and listen to name pronunciations.

To see how Pronounce works, Vinayak suggests looking at his school, Northcote College, where about 750 students and teachers have added their names.

Schools can contact Vinayak or register by emailing:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 10:00 am, 10 October 2019

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