So I recently saw the film Arrival. I really enjoyed it. In case you’re not familiar with its basic premise: a bunch of weird huge pod-like structures have descended from a planet unknown in cities around the world and there’s a rush to figure out who these aliens are and what they want. Our heroine, a linguistics professor, works conscientiously to learn the aliens’ language in order to best understand their intentions. It’s a story of language, culture and time.

For me, it’s a ‘first contact’ metaphor and a reminder that language, worldview and culture are inextricably intertwined. That we cannot understand another people without knowing their language. And that language is not neutral. It conveys our values, beliefs and understandings about the way the world works. In the film, without giving away spoilers, the crucial understanding is about time. The film deliberately plays with the white, Western, belief that time is linear, to clever effects.

But it less about time that I’m thinking about here, and more the concept of how language imbues culture.

B. Navez CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve been privileged recently to be on a writing team. The task has been to use plain English words to capture ideas that will help schools identify their strengths and weaknesses in a particular area. On this team has been two exceptional Māori educators, and they have, in a respectful yet insistent way, challenged me to consider my use of inclusive language.

You see, I intentionally used the word ‘school’ in the previous paragraph. Ordinarily, with the sincere desire to be inclusive, I would write ‘school/kura’ so that Māori medium learning environments would be captured. But ‘kura’ is not a synonym for ‘school’. A kura has its own way of being, its own processes and educational aspirations for its learners – its ākonga. And for me, this is the real challenge of living in a bicultural country that privileges Pākehā over Māori. With the very best of intentions, I adopt (co-opt?) Māori words and phrases into my lexicon, but without the understanding of the cultural concepts these kupu contain.

As we were working as a writing team, trying desperately to express abstract ideas in practical, functional English language, every now and then one of the Māori educators would say: “Vanilla!” as a reminder that we were using exclusive language that conveyed the assumption that how English medium schools operate are the way all educational environments work, and this is simply not the case. It’s been a real wake-up call for me.

Returning to my regular work, I was reviewing another piece of writing I was working on. Again, something intended for use by schools/kura. I had been very happy with how the work was progressing. As I looked at it again with fresh eyes, I heard my colleague in my head: “Vanilla!” I could see that what I had written was totally Pākehā-centric and that kura would not be able to ‘see’ themselves in it. I was excited by my self-realisation, but equally frustrated that I did not know how to un-vanilla my writing.

For now, though, I am pleased to have this new perspective and this reminder as a call to personal action. I have been wanting to increasing my knowledge of te reo Māori, but now I know I must. I cannot understand the Māori worldview without doing so. This is my own arrival.