Open letter: Maintaining linguistics programmes at universities in Aotearoa New Zealand

Executive Committee
Linguistic Society of New Zealand
14 June 2023

Tēnā kōrua

Hon Jan Tinetti, Minister of Education
Tim Fowler, Chief Executive, Tertiary Education Commission

Open letter: Maintaining linguistics programmes at universities in Aotearoa New Zealand

We are writing to you as the Executive Committee of the Linguistics Society of New Zealand to express our deep concern regarding the current situation of staff and programme cuts at universities in Aotearoa New Zealand, and to seek your assistance.

Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington is currently proposing dramatic cuts to multiple programmes, with linguistics one of the subjects of investigation. Formal proposals on which programmes are to be cut and exactly how many staff are affected are due out on 26 June. Similar processes are underway at the University of Otago and Massey University – Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa, with linguistics programmes at these universities also highly likely to be affected.

We find ourselves in the unprecedented and extraordinary situation of linguistics as a discipline being at risk of national collapse.

We are deeply alarmed by this situation, given the vital importance of linguistics to our students, Aotearoa, the Pacific region, and the international research community, as we set out below.

We understand that all our universities are struggling with reduced student enrolments and the post-COVID economy. This short-term situation is not a reason to slash essential teaching and research programmes. We need a long-term vision that recognises the inherent value of our disciplines, including linguistics, and supports us to weather the storm.

We urge you to work with universities to find a funding solution that will preserve the practice of linguistics and stop job cuts across the humanities sector in Aotearoa.

Some of the reasons it is vital linguistics continues to be taught and researched at our universities are that:

  • Language is at the heart of human experience. As the science of language, linguistics underpins all aspects of our lives. Studying how we use language in everyday life, from greetings to meetings, from a baby’s cry to the latest AI, is relevant to every human endeavour. All things human—songs and sciences, success and sympathy, social networks and start-ups, self and Siri—are touched by language.
  • Students benefit greatly from studying linguistics. Although many fields contribute to our understanding of social interaction, only linguistics focuses directly and specifically on the role of language. Linguistics sits in a unique space between the arts and sciences, and students learn to integrate tools from the sciences and the arts to understand language data and communicate effectively about that data. These are essential abilities for today’s society and job market. When our students graduate, they are equipped to apply their skills in data analysis, critical thinking, research, precision and attention to detail to any number of careers in business, government, media, IT, health and education. Those who become professional linguists – such as language planners, language activists, language teachers, and computational linguists – contribute significantly to language-related issues in Aotearoa and the Pacific region, bringing their expertise to documenting languages, writing language policies, leading language revitalisation initiatives, designing language teaching materials, and grappling with AI.
  • Linguistics research is very successful at our universities. Cutting teaching programmes also means cutting research programmes. Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington tops the QS rankings for the country at a world ranking of 55, with several of our other universities close behind. This is a discipline where New Zealand shines. Over 4+ decades we have collectively produced graduates who not only populate our academic discipline right across the world, but who make their mark in a wide range of fields and endeavours across the country. Losing our linguistics programmes means losing the enormous reputation enjoyed by New Zealand academics pursuing their research with brilliance and passion.
  • We are field leaders in linguistics. Aotearoa is particularly known for its central place within the field of sociolinguisitics, represented through the founding of one of the two leading international journals on our shore (Journal of Sociolinguistics, Wiley-Blackwell, 1997). Within sociolinguistics, we have strengths in variationist sociolinguistics, sociophonetics, and discourse analysis. Part of this is specifically due to the language situation of our country – we have access to developments within New Zealand English from its very early days, Aotearoa has been described as a unique sociolinguistic laboratory. International doctoral students fight for limited places to come to our departments to be trained by the world’s best, where theories, methods and analytic approaches are pushing boundaries and establishing field standards.
  • Pressing social issues in Aotearoa require linguistic expertise. We continue to face enormous challenges in revitalising te reo Māori, which is a government priority and an essential feature of decolonisation. Linguists in Aotearoa have much to contribute to language revitalisation, with our expertise in sociolinguistics, language planning and language development and change. Aotearoa is also home to many other migrant languages, particularly Pacific languages, including those that originate in Pacific countries of the New Zealand realm. We don’t want New Zealand to be the place that languages go to die. As a primary location where peoples of the Pacific migrate, it is vital to have academic resources which can support maintaining this linguistic richness. More broadly, in a multicultural Aotearoa, intercultural communication helps create a successful nation culturally and economically, and linguistics is the primary field that researches this area. At least 25% of our population were not born in this country. Embracing the benefits of multilingualism, recognising the role of linguistic rights as a human right, and supporting the settlement of migrants and refugees, are all vital and challenging societal issues that linguists are equipped to handle. Linguistic research already contributes to government policies in these spaces, working with government organisations, ranging from Whaikaha to the Ministry for Ethnic Communities, the Human Rights Commission, Te Taura Whiri i te reo Māori, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and the Ministry of Education.
  • Linguistics in Aotearoa has much to offer to address global challenges. What we learn through our linguistic work in Aotearoa can help to address not only national but global challenges. Aotearoa is well known internationally for its innovative approaches to language revitalisation, among other areas. Linguistic challenges require linguistic solutions. We can use what we have learnt here to contribute to these challenges, enhancing our international impact in terms of research and innovation.

For all the above reasons, we must not diminish or discard the resource of linguistics programmes in our universities. To do so would be short-sighted and damaging to our economy and our society. We therefore urge you to take action to prevent this from happening.

Noho ora mai

The Executive Committee of the Linguistics Society of New Zealand

Dr Julia de Bres (President)
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
Massey University – Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa

Dr Tony Fisher
Director of Teaching and Learning – College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Massey University – Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa

Dr Sasha Calhoun
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Victoria Chen
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics
Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington

Dr Julie Barbour
Senior Lecturer in Linguistics University of Waikato
Associate Professor Lynn Clark Associate Professor in Linguistics University of Canterbury

Dr Eleanor Ridge
Lecturer in Linguistics
Massey University – Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa

Dr Simon Overall
Lecturer in Linguistics
University of Otago