The lasting legacy of a Pākehā teacher who believed in the power of te reo Māori

At the beginning of Te Wiki o Te Reo 2018, a new app was launched that translated images into Māori. Karyn Tattersfield looks at the legacy of John Moorfield ‘s famous dictionary, and the revolutionary new technology of Kupu. 

The extent of the late Professor John Moorfield’s impact on te reo Māori is hard to quantify. It can be found in a range of print and digital resources charting the future of the spoken language. The digital language revitalisation application Kupu, created out of a partnership between Spark, Colenso BBDO, Google and AUT’s Te Ipukarea research team who are continuing Professor Moorfield’s work, is just one example.

Kupu, gifted to New Zealanders this week for Māori Language Week 2018, brings technology, connectivity and data together to enable people to take photos of everyday objects and see them translated into te reo in real time. It promotes the use of te reo by presenting nouns and adjectives and associated audio-files for pronunciation from the Te Aka Māori to English, English to Māori Dictionary, authored by Moorfield.

Moorfield – a Pākehā who developed a love of te reo at St Stephen’s School as a young man – made a financial decision in the 1980s that played a big part in his lifelong mission to make te reo teaching tools widely available. That decision was to direct royalties from the sale of his popular Te Whanake learning materials into a charitable fund.

The Te Whanake Fund, administered by the AUT Foundation, ensured the momentum of the productive Te Ipukarea research institute he helped establish at AUT in 2008. The small team of seven academics in Te Ipukarea punches above its weight, producing a vast range of widely used books, dictionaries, study guides, teachers’ manuals, educational TV shows and digital tools. The sale of these resources on the Te Whanake website, continue to feed the fund, which is accessed to further develop language teaching tools.

Kupu, the app (Photos: Itunes/Kupu)

It was always Moorfield’s belief that resources should be accessible and free wherever possible. Te Aka, Moorfield’s comprehensive Māori-English, English-Māori Dictionary, was published online in 2006 and received 2.3 million unique visits last year – a 30% increase on the previous year.

Moorfield’s loss is felt greatly by his colleagues at Te Ipukarea who continue that work. Professor Tania Ka’ai is emotional as she speaks about the legacy of her colleague, mentor and friend. She would visit him in hospital and at his home in Hamilton, and says that he worked on his precious dictionary right until the end.

Ka’ai says: “There is no doubt in my mind that his legacy will live on because of his generosity and belief in the Te Ipukarea research team in continuing his work for future generations.”

While the fund hasn’t been the sole – or even the main – source of research and development income for the institute, it’s been of strategic importance as the team continued to build the Te Whanake resource collection, says Ka’ai.

“I want to call it a lifeline,” she says. It’s been there to ensure the continuous survival and development of the team’s important work. “It’s a very specific fund – it’s not to be exploited – it’s only there to support a te reo initiative that we can’t fund through our core business,” she says, but it’s particularly useful on the occasions that funding opportunities and capacity don’t keep pace with what the team wants to achieve.

The reason behind Moorfield’s selfless decision to channel the proceeds of his work into Te Whanake was his gratitude to the people who guided him and fostered his love for and capability in te reo, Ka’ai explains.

“He saw himself as an ordinary man who was privileged to have a series of mentors who took him under their wing, so this is his gift back to say thank you and to acknowledge all of those people – some of whom are still alive and others who have passed on.”

The Te Ipukarea team – back: Professor John Moorfield; Dr Rachael Ka’ai-Mahuta; Dr Dean Mahuta; front: Professor Tania Ka’ai; Sir Tīmoti Kāretu; Tania Smith; Professor Wharehuia Milroy.

Starting with Hoāni Waititi who noticed his talents at St Stephen’s School and began exposing him to the Māori world, and later in his academic career, by eminent Māori leaders such as John Rangihau, Ngoi Pewhairangi, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and Te Wharehuia Milroy.

“John was committed to seeing the Māori language flourish,” says Ka’ai. “His greatest love of all the resources was his dictionary and without a word of a lie, he worked on this every day of his life since it was first conceived.”

Talking to Ka’ai, you’re left in no doubt that her team still has plenty to do. And the Te Whanake Fund will be there for the journey, quietly providing certainty and back up when worthy projects could falter due to funding priorities.

The fund is accessed sparingly, and always with the due diligence applied by the trustees at the AUT Foundation to ensure its use meets the charitable purpose for which it was established. Recently it’s been used for such things as a hui of national reo experts, the professional recording of 6,800 new words to add to 18,000 audio files of spoken words already in the dictionary, and the purchase of recording equipment to document and preserve spoken language. There have also been opportunities to support innovative projects that may have found it hard to attract funding from other sources – like a language series called Tōku Reo played on Māori TV.

Ultimately, the Te Whanake Fund has given Te Ipukarea breathing room and enough independence to continue its forward momentum when needed. There’s a sense that knowing the fund is always there has also given Te Ipukarea team the freedom to dream big, and invest energy in uninhibited visions.

Ka’ai, who describes her role as the ‘think tank – the innovator’, says there’s a bank of projects she and Moorfield discussed before he died, for which she has his full support.  “When John was alive – we’d talk about it, we’d say ’we can use the fund for this and for that’. But we also want to keep the fund healthy.”

The collaboration for Kupu pleased Moorfield in his final days, Ka’ai says, with its potential to broaden everyday access to correct usage of te reo. The Te Ipukarea team is also quietly anticipating a spike in the sale of Te Whanake resources thanks to traffic driven to Te Whanake resources through Kupu, which can be used to fund future te reo Māori projects. As of writing, more than 80,000 people have downloaded the app.

Karyn Tattersfield is a journalist and communications specialist working in the area of social impact. She is a staff member of the Corporate Governance and Development department at AUT and a managing director of Social Effect. 

Download Kupu for iOS and Android.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.