Monday morning stand-up. To translate the text, search: spinoff passive aggressive reo (Photo: Tina Tiller)

Blank stares and brain explosions: My day speaking only te reo

For the first day of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, Alice Neville banned herself from speaking English. Here’s how it went down.

I discovered a foolproof way to make a day of speaking only te reo Māori easy. Just don’t talk. Seriously, turituri and you’ll be fine. 

I know, I know, that’s not the point, but it’s the point I reached on the afternoon of this past Monday, when I had decided I would speak te reo Māori anake mō te rā katoa. 

Some people commit to speaking only Māori for the full seven days of Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, or even the entire month of Mahuru. One day? Piece of keke, nē rā?

Only problem is, I can’t really speak it. Sure, I’ve been learning for five years or so, but, as I have discovered, no one gets fluent from one night class a week and a slack approach to mahi kāinga. 

This year, however, I realised I’ve got to actually put in the mahi if I want to be able to have a natural kōrero on a subject beyond, um, my pēpeha and the weather, and I’m doing a course through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa that involves monthly noho marae (full-immersion all-weekend marae stays) in addition to the requisite one night class a week. 

Have I got better? Kinda, I guess, but I’m still lazy. Which is why I realised I’d have to set some hard rules for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori if I was going to do anything beyond the token doubling of the usual amount of “kia ora” and “mōrena” I chuck in the general direction of my workmates each morning.

Te keteparaha o te rā

I live and work in a mainly Pākehā world, and my job involves writing stories (in English), but one day of te reo only seemed doable. I settled for Monday, as that’s when my weekly TWOA class is held, with the hope it would all be so natural and easy that I’d just naturally slip into Māori for the rest of the week/my life. 

Spoiler alert: didn’t quite work like that. 

My self-imposed rules were that I could communicate with workmates and friends only in te reo. If I had to respond to essential emails from outside parties, I could use English. Also, I could write stories in English, because you know, that’s my job. 

It began easily enough, because I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I live alone, so there wasn’t a flatmate or partner or child or even a pet I could throw a kia ora at. I was going to get the bus but then remembered I had to go to class after work, so I drove, so no kōrero opportunities there. I did respond to some messages from non-Māori-speaking friends in te reo, but didn’t actually have to open my mouth until I got to work.

Once I was in the office though, it was on. Ātea editor Leonie Hayden, my only reo-speaking colleague, asked me if I was nervous about the day ahead. “E āmaimai ana koe?” I stared at her blankly, because I didn’t know the word for nervous. Great start.

Soon after arriving, I went down to the cafe next door, as I do every morning, to get my coffee, taking the below sign I’d handily downloaded from the Mahuru Māori website and printed out (in black and white, don’t worry Spinoff commercial team), with “the month of September” sheepishly crossed out and replaced with “today”. 

“Kia ora!” I said. “Ah, flat white?” the barista responded, before I could even thrust my keep cup (kapu mahi rua, FYI) and sign at her. “Āe, he mōwai māku.” 

Perhaps not the greatest of challenges, given she knew my order already (mōwai = flat white), but on reading the sign she looked impressed, like she really wanted to be able to respond in Māori but didn’t quite have the words. 

I returned to the office in time for the weekly stand-up, where everyone takes turns saying what they’ve got coming up for the week. I’d written myself a small script the night before, so it was easy, even though I don’t think anyone understood what I was on about (which is a bonus, really, because my story ideas got through without any of the usual probing from the bosses. Rawe). 

A confused conversation with Hayden Donnell about reduced cream (kirimi mimiti) and Kiwi onion dip (I dunno, kīnaki aniani o Aotearoa??) followed, where Leonie had to step in to help with some translation, but the rest of the morning progressed smoothly as I got on with my work, not talking to anyone much, accepting the impressed smiles from my colleagues, several of whom told me I’d inspired them to finally, definitely, actually this time sign up for classes.

I felt a bit bad, to be honest. I wasn’t doing anything that impressive. Something about being a Pākehā speaking Māori (barely and incompetently) impresses people in a way I don’t think it does for Māori – it’s just expected, presumed you’ve grown up with it. That’s often not the case, of course, and in many ways I think it’s a lot easier for me than it is for Māori – there’s no pressure, no expectations, no complex intergenerational history of injustice and pain and anger to get my head around before I even open my mouth. 

At lunchtime I had a non-Spinoff-related meeting to attend, where I lapsed and used some English. I tried doing it in te reo, I really did, but I realised I was wasting everyone’s time. 

Back in the office I was back on the reo buzz, however, though by about 3pm had basically given up talking, instead occasionally emitting strange high-pitched sounds in frustration from missing out on the workplace banter. My head was hurting from the effort, and when Leonie asked, in te reo, when I was likely to write this piece, I responded, “Ah… āpōpō, pea… ka ‘bash it out’ ahau.”

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When I got to my full-immersion class that evening, my hoa ako asked how my day of reo was going. Under my breath I emitted a groan and lapsed into English. “Ut tut tut!” she cried, quite rightly. Back to reo I went. 

After class I went to the supermarket, and saw a sign advising shoppers to “celebrate Te Wiki o te Reo Māori by giving these words a try!” with speech bubbles underneath saying “kia ora”, “ka kite” and “kei te pēhea koe?”

I scoffed internally (he aha te kupu Māori for scoff?), thinking come on Countdown, couldn’t you take it up a notch from this basic shit, but then proceeded through my shop and the automated checkout without uttering a single word in any language to anyone. 

A timely reminder to myself, as the whole day was, to karawhiua – just give it a bloody go.  


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