Call to kōrero: The revival of Te Reo Māori as an official language of Aotearoa

By Hayley White

As Māori language week draws closer, I cannot help but reflect on the role that Te Reo Māori plays in our society here in Aotearoa. As a multicultural country, we are extremely privileged to have such a rich language woven into the very fabric of our nation. Unfortunately, our English ancestors may not have seen it the same way. For years now, Māori have worked to rebuild their language, but that effort did not happen suddenly. Since colonisation, Māori have pushed and fought to reclaim their identities and New Zealand has not made it easy.

In the Māori language Act of 1987, Te Reo Māori was deemed an official language of New Zealand in an effort towards its revitalisation. As an official language, it could be used in Court of Law, and the Māori language commission was created to advise the government on how to promote and protect Te Reo. Since the legislation came into play, the availability of Te Reo Māori in primary and secondary schools improved immensely and hundreds of kōhanga reo (Māori language preschools) and Kura kaupapa Māori (Māori language immersion schools) sprang up all around the country. By 2013, 6.44% of total primary and secondary school enrolments were into kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori

By Hayley White

As Māori language week draws closer, I cannot help but reflect on the role that Te Reo Māori plays in our society here in Aotearoa. As a multicultural country, we are extremely privileged to have such a rich language woven into the very fabric of our nation. Unfortunately, our English ancestors may not have seen it the same way. For years now, Māori have worked to rebuild their language, but that effort did not happen suddenly. Since colonisation, Māori have pushed and fought to reclaim their identities and New Zealand has not made it easy.

In the Māori language Act of 1987, Te Reo Māori was deemed an official language of New Zealand in an effort towards its revitalisation. As an official language, it could be used in Court of Law, and the Māori language commission was created to advise the government on how to promote and protect Te Reo. Since the legislation came into play, the availability of Te Reo Māori in primary and secondary schools improved immensely and hundreds of kōhanga reo (Māori language preschools) and Kura kaupapa Māori (Māori language immersion schools) sprang up all around the country. By 2013, 6.44% of total primary and secondary school enrolments were into kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori (Department of Statistics New Zealand, 2014).

One person who attended both kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori immersion schools is Tipene Douglas (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine). Like many Māori, Tipene’s family has a harrowing story of how their ancestors were mistreated for just being Māori. Like many other Māori, this made it hard for his family to keep a hold on their language and culture. As the grandson to staunch Māori advocates, Tipene grew up not being allowed to speak English.

“In my family, my great-aunty particularly, they fought a lot for the culture and language to be revived through their struggles, and so that’s why they growled us so much for speaking English,” he tells me. As kids, he says, they did not realise how lucky they were to be immersed in the culture. They grew up with the Māori stories and histories of the 1900s, all the way back to their whakapapa (lineage) and tīpuna (ancestors). He says it was quite a strict upbringing and when he turned sixteen, he began to really see the beauty in Te Ao Māori (the Māori world view).

“The plant was already there for it to flourish, as opposed to having to start from zero, from a kākano (seed). We already had that plant, that tipu, inside us,” he tells me. Unfortunately, not all Māori were able to experience this total immersion growing up. Even worse, as a direct result of colonisation, not a lot of Māori grew up learning their language. It continues to be an obstacle for many people attempting to relearn their culture and whakapapa.

When European settlers came to New Zealand, they learned first how to speak Māori. Māori were accommodating to the European newcomers, and the Māori chiefs sponsored the missionary schools set up in the 1820s. Europeans were teaching Māori how to read and write Te Reo Māori, and they picked it up extremely fast. Half of Māori were able to read by the 1850s and a third could write it. At the same time, Europeans were teaching them English.

Māori were happy to be taught English because it meant that it would help them deal with the English government for land and missionary school purposes.

On the other hand, the English government were teaching Māori English because they wanted to replace the Māori culture and language and ‘civilise’ Māori into becoming colonial servants and manual labourers. Peace between Māori and the English disappeared in 1860 and war took place, leading to an almost irreparable loss of Te Reo and culture all the way through to the 1900s. Young Māori grew up in English schools and were forced to learn English – often to the detriment of their culture. As time went on, Māori continued to be treated poorly in school systems and everyday life.

In the 1970s, a survey was performed analysing the historical usage of Te Reo Māori. 6,925 households were asked how teachers reacted to Māori students speaking Te Reo in classrooms. The question was only asked in Māori so that people who could not understand Māori were unable to answer. In total, 40% of families said they had been personally punished for speaking Māori in schools. 29.5% were physically punished, 10.5% were punished in unspecified ways, and only 7% were encouraged to speak Māori at school. This attitude reached its peak in the 1930s and slowly started to decline until it reached a stalemate around the 60s. By then, it was just as likely someone would be encouraged for speaking Māori as discouraged (Benton, 1988).

Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu is the largest state school in New Zealand and offers free Te Reo Māori courses, under specific Ministry of Education criteria. Mike Hollings, chief executive of Te Kura, says: “The Ministry of Education has agreed that we can do it for free for people who meet certain criteria and it is part of our support of the revitalisation of Te Reo Māori. It’s part of one of the Treaty principals, which is the active protection [of Te Reo] and so our contribution is enabling that to happen,” he says to me.

Over the past year, Te Kura has already seen a 12% rise in enrolments for Te Reo Māori between 2020 to 2021, which does not include enrolments for the second half of the year. Since 2016, when online learning was first implemented at Te Kura, they have seen a 77% increase in Te Reo Māori course enrolments. It is no wonder Te Reo Māori class enrolments are on the boom. Over the past few years, there has been an emphasis on Te Reo as a New Zealand language, but Mike says that these things cannot be forced.

“The best way is to make people want to learn it, and [make it] an attractive thing to do because it becomes a call to kōrero.” Mike tells me that there are also big employment advantages to learning to speak Te Reo Māori.

“Certainly socially, it’s a great advantage and I can say in New Zealand now, economically, people who can speak Te Reo Māori have greater job opportunities. There’s a whole industry that is involved with Te Reo Māori in broadcast, in the media, through music, through the creative industries, through writing.”

And he is right; many Māori industries have popped up in the last 20 years. Māori Television was created in 2004 and broadcasts programmes that make significant contributions to the revitalisation of Māori language and culture. It has given birth to TV shows like Te Ao with Moana, a current affairs show that tells national and worldwide news through the Māori lens; and Ōpatiki, a Māori language series hosted by Pānia Papa. There’s also been the revival of Te Reo Māori in music, especially popular music like Benee’s Soaked (Kua Kore Ke Kupu) and Six60’s Don’t forget your Roots (Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō).

“Te Reo Māori is very popular in this day and age – and with the younger generation – because it’s being promoted in so many different positive ways, Māori music especially. And so, the love for Te Reo is growing more and more, and it’s spreading throughout the country beyond just Māori,” says Tipene.

When discussing the differences between Te Reo Māori now and when our tīpuna spoke it, both Tipene and Mike acknowledge the dialect variations between different iwi that still exist. While many theorists are on the fence about whether or not dialect is important, it is an essential part of the Māori language because it speaks to the diversity of our indigenous language. An interesting thing to note is that while older Māori generations tend to stick to their dialectal variations, younger generations of Māori are more likely to mix dialects. Tipene has experienced this very thing, saying that while he was growing up, he was taught how to speak in the dialect of his family. This in turn made it difficult for him in the Kōhanga reo and Kura kaupapa Māori because the difference in dialects made it harder to make friends and be understood.

“I was brought up in Christchurch but with my Ngāpuhi whanau – a Northern tribe. In our household, our language, our Reo, was dialectally Ngāti Hine o Ngāpuhi – Ngāti Hine is our hapū. We had our own Reo, our own mita – the word for dialect,” he explains.

“As a kid, it was hard for me to really pick up the core of this Ngāti Hine Reo and it sounded very different to my peers at school who would pick me out because they would notice. And my Ngāti Hine Reo consisted of a lot of transliterated words, like for the word “no” they would simply use , while generally all other tribes would say Kāo or kāhore. Or Ngāti Hine dialect would say horekau for “nothing”, but the other iwis would say karekau or kāhorekau, so very much every tribe, or most tribes, have a unique dialect of their own.”

In spite of the different variations, the version of the language that is taught in classes does not hinder people learning Te Reo, and both Tipene and Mark say that there are no limits to learning the language. When asked if he thinks learning Te Reo Māori is important, Mark gives me an enthusiastic ‘Yes’. He tells me that the language was never lost, and that there have always been people who were able to speak Māori, but it is important to keep the language alive and growing.

“It’s part of New Zealand fabric, it’s part of our country, and it’s part of what makes New Zealand, or Aotearoa, what we are, and so I think that people who learn Te Reo Māori are much more inclusive of the whole culture of Aotearoa,” he says. Tipene agrees, saying that anyone can learn Te Reo. While his upbringing was harsh, he says that Te Reo needs to be respected and uplifted and it is never too late to learn: “For New Zealanders, just to respect the language and everything that comes with the culture. Just general respect for this beautiful language that we have only just retained,” Tipene says.

“There are heaps of avenues in which you can learn Te Reo Māori. There are classes, there are waananga, the Kura Reo and, you know, you can just take your time step by step if you wish. But it’s never too late to learn if you want to speak Te Reo.”

This month during Māori language week, is never a better time to start learning Te Reo Māori as the official language of Aotearoa. I myself have started to incorporate Te Reo Māori into my everyday language, simple greetings like kia ora (hello, cheers, good luck, best wishes), whanau (family), and mōrena (good morning) keep the language alive in my mind.

Below is a little cheat sheet that can give you a stepping start into incorporating Māori into your everyday:

Kō _________ toku ingoa
My name is _________

Kō __________ ahau
I am __________

Kei te pehea koe? Kei te pai ahau (or) tino pai
How are you? I’m fine/ good (or) really good

Whakarongo mai
Listen to me

Whare
House, home

Haere mai
Come here, welcome – a greeting

Koa
Please – used with requests to make them more polite

Ata mārie
Good morning

Pō mārie
Good night

Tau ke
Awesome, great, fantastic

Ngā mihi
Acknowledgements

Tēnā rawa atu koe
Thank you very much (singular)

Note: any words that have macrons (ā, ē, ī, ō, ū) are an extended sound i.e. Tēnā would sound similar to ‘Tee-naa’ and Mōrena would sound similar to ‘moo-re-na’.

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