Why learn te reo Māori? What’s the use of learning a minority language in the modern age?

Why would anyone bother to learn te reo Māori? What’s the use of learning a minority language in the modern age?

I started my journey to learn te reo Māori three years ago with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, but it was a desire that had been percolating for a lot longer than that. For me, my desire to learn te reo Māori comes from a number of places that have led me to the journey I am now on.

I am Ngāi Tahu. I am Ngāi Tūāhuriri. I am in the ‘blue book’ (the record Ngāi Tahu hold of their descendants which started in 1848). But this was always academic to me. I grew up in a pākehā (European) family in Hamilton with very limited interaction with Māori tikanga (custom). I spent an hour a week at primary school singing songs and learning kapa haka. I didn’t know my pepeha or mihi (how to introduce myself formally) and I had never visited my marae until recently. It was compulsory to take the Treaty of Waitangi paper as part of my Resource and Environmental Planning degree at Massey and, as part of my minor, I also took a Politics of Culture anthropology paper. I found that university was an opportunity for me to explore what being in the ‘blue book’ actually meant to me.

I never got to meet my maternal grandmother as she passed away when my mother was a child. I often wonder whether she could speak or understand te reo or whether New Zealand’s early policies of assimilation of the Māori culture prevented her from learning or speaking her own language. Could her mother speak or understand te reo? In which generation of my whānau (family) did we stop being able to speak our native language?

My friend’s children are bi-lingual and when they were very young, one of them gave me the book “Spot” in te reo to read to her. I found myself feeling embarrassed that I could not read such a basic book in an official language of New Zealand. I had lived in Belgium speaking Flemish for a year; a country where high school students are proficient in their native language plus English, French and German. And here I was, unable to read a toddlers book in Māori! I am learning so that when I have children, they will be comfortable speaking both English and te reo Māori.

At my previous place of employment, an elderly pākehā councillor opened a Council meeting with her mihi. It was the first time she had done it. She was nervous. It wasn’t perfect. But it was the intention of her actions that shone through. I thought, if she can learn, so can I.

My job as a planner means I have the privilege of regularly meeting and discussing issues with tangata whenua (people of the land). Being comfortable in the Māori world and correcting my pronunciation of Māori place names is a way for me to show my integrity, respect and commitment to good outcomes for all parties.

My journey is a personal one but I am not alone on it. The kaiako (teachers) I have had have been amazing, my classmates are supportive and I enjoy being able to share what I am learning with my colleagues at Beca.

I may not be the best student - I should study more, my pronunciation needs work and my memory is terrible, but I have finally started my lifelong journey. When I look back to where I started, I know that I am improving with each step.

Māori Language week is growing in popularity and visibility every year, so there is more te reo on the radio, TV and even at the supermarket. It would be great if this wasn’t just limited to one week of the year and we truly embraced the unique culture that is endemic to New Zealand.

Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei Seek the treasure you value most dearly: if you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.

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Genevieve Doube

Senior Planner

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