For New Zealand’s first people, their entirely oral language went beyond communication and “into the realm of identity and metaphysics,” the historian Paul Moon wrote in his 2016 book Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori Language Under Siege in the Nineteenth Century, serving as a “conduit linking the physical and spiritual worlds.” But the language did not fare well under colonization. After the Native Schools Act was passed in 1867, te reo was banned from classrooms and children were beaten for speaking it. By the 1980s, with less than 20 percent of the Māori population able to speak the language fluently, a national movement was launched to try and save it, including grassroots initiatives such as the establishment of Māori-language pre-schools. The movement is still held up as a pioneering example of language preservation today, but it remains unclear whether the damage of significant and prolonged marginalization can be undone.
Geneva Alexander-Marsters, the 27-year-old lead singer of SoccerPractise, first started experimenting with contemporary bilingual music by covering Māori songs she learned at school as a kid. Born to a white mother and Māori father, she has adopted what she calls a “gray area” (“too brown for the white kids, too white for the brown kids”), which made her a bridge between both worlds. “SoccerPractise speaks to that,” the singer told me from her home in Auckland. “We’re a bilingual band. We look like this and we do this.”
Alexander-Marsters said she believes her music opens the door to the language for people who may feel too outside the culture to walk in. “There are people who are interested in Māori, but they think they don’t know enough,” she told me. “Music is really powerful as an educational tool because you just have to listen to it over and over again to start understanding the words and meanings.”
McWhorter sees this comfort level as crucial. “Not all people understand that reviving a language—if one really wants it to live again in anything like the form that it once had—means getting people using it spontaneously in real life, including speaking it to their children,” he told me. “Art, and I would say especially music, is a great way to inculcate this ingrained sense of using the language, with real expressiveness, with the infectiousness of music and its sense of cultural authenticity.”
Anna Luisa Daigneault, a development officer at the Oregon-based nonprofit Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, has researched bilingual music and bands extensively in Canada and Latin America. She believes the key to their artistic success is cultivating a strong local following. “[These bands] do lots of performances. They care about the elders. They care about the youth. They’re genuinely doing all the grassroots stuff it takes to reach a wider audience, and it takes years,” she told me. But there are limitations to being a bilingual band. The immediate audience is small, there’s a glut of competing musicians promoting themselves through social media every day, and the likelihood of people being put off by lyrics they can't understand or a song name they can’t spell in Google is real. On top of that, it’s difficult to measure how someone might be affected by exposure to bilingual music in daily life, as little research has been done. Daigneault said she was only aware of studies that focused on music within a school curriculum.