Reclaiming te reo Māori is always hard, but the hardest work – and the most important – takes place within the home, writes Te Kuru Dewes.
First published in 2021
Te reo Māori is everywhere. While that riles up certain types who haunt comments sections and talkback radio, watching Jordyn Rapana reaction posts always gives me a laugh and welcome respite. Scrolling down a bit, I might find a helpful video by Hemi Kelly to help me touch up on my grammar. Thursday nights are often spent on the couch playing Kaupapa by Kura Rēhia with my mates. Te reo pumps out of my car radio as I drive up SH35, listening to ‘Rehurehu’ by Muroki, one the new songs from Waiata Anthems. Turning the dial to Radio Ngāti Porou, I hear the latest bilingual East Coast anthem ’35’ by Ka Hao, a group of rangatahi reo Māori lead by award winning artist Rob Ruha. Basically, I can choose to live in a world where it’s the people who reject te reo Māori who are the minority.
But there’s no doubt te reo is trending. It’s more visible now than ever, as it should be. However, for an endangered language to survive it has to be spoken inside the home. As my koro would say, “Ko te reo te pou tokomanawa o te Māoritanga”. Our reo is the foundation of our culture. And for it to survive, it needs to be the pou tokomanawa in our whare: carved with intention, unmoving, unfaltering.
Those rare instances of our reo on mainstream platforms are just ripples along the surface of a much deeper language regeneration movement that has been slowly gaining momentum for decades. It’s cool. It makes me feel at home on my whenua. Exposure helps to normalise the use of te reo in public domains, but it can’t substitute for learning the language, and the values and cultural awareness that go with it. First and foremost, te reo needs to sit comfortably in the hearts, minds and mouths of Māori.
Linguists around the world say for an endangered language to be defined as secure and alive within a particular family, it must be spoken across three generations. Recent research projection models predict te reo is on a path towards extinction at current learning rates. It sounds gloomy but there are pockets of success. Iwi-run whānau language revitalisation programmes are starting to bear fruit. The Ngāi Tahu programme, Kotahi Mano Kaika, has engaged over 1,500 whānau, surpassing its goal of getting one thousand Ngāi Tahu families speaking te reo in the home by 2025.
Then there is the powerhouse behind the reo revitalisation movement. We now have two generations of kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa Māori and other Māori education programme graduates. They’re raising native-language speaking babies, creating Māori language content, and facilitating immersive Māori language workshops around the country. These are the super-saiyan Māori, the Swiss Army knife-type multi-talented Māori. These are the direct products of a dedicated minority who set out to redesign Māori education through a number of hard-fought political campaigns from the 1970s through to today. And listening to today’s empowered rangatahi, it’s easy to think the language might be secure. But the truth is, te reo speakers are the minority within a minority.
For Māori learning our native tongue as a second language, it’s never as straightforward as signing up to a class, then attending and progressing through the levels of proficiency. It should be that simple, but it’s not. These days, classes are over-subscribed, often with well-meaning non-Māori seeking to further their cultural understanding. Some of our people are taking a whole year off work, putting careers on hold to enrol in immersion language education. Throw in inequities of access to health and wealth, and getting out the door to acquire the tools to bring the reo home can seem impossible.
Then there’s navigating the complexity of whakamā: the shame of feeling inadequate. This is compounded by learning in classes with non-Māori who are more fluent or more confident in speaking. These are valid experiences, and not restricted to second-language learners alone. Our whakapapa tells us that kupu should roll off our tongue, without a stutter, without that critical internal-voice that pulls us up when we say something incorrectly, without having to stop and think what the right expression is for that exact moment, without the panic and pressure of that moment forcing us to resort to English. However, unravelling our arero from its colonial confines takes more than just getting our tongues around the vowel sounds – it’s about processing and accepting the loss of our reo rangatira.
The language links stretching back through time, across the largest ocean in the world, were systematically severed by the Crown. We know how they did it. They banned te reo, separated our people from their land and whenua which hold our mātauranga, our history and our reo. We know how we got here, and we’ve made huge gains in clawing back what was lost. We’ll continue those battles, but now it’s time to really hone in on what’s going to make our reo thrive over the next 250 years.
The first step is to make a decision. That decision needs to be one from a place of defiance, a fierce commitment to regenerating the language and an unshakable belief in the value of it within society. Once we identify and become familiar with that source of power that lies within our whakapapa, we can learn how to tap into it. Part of overcoming the fear and insecurity of speaking te reo is about sharing kōrero with others who are on the same journey. A burden shared is a burden halved and a lighter load to bear. It is the struggle which unites us. And part of sharing in this struggle is learning kanohi ki te kanohi.
The resources for learning te reo are out there, and they’re great, but at the end of the day, they can’t replace real-time communication. Whakawhiti kōrero is more than just the words – it’s body language, those subtle non-verbal cues which are often tribally-unique mannerisms. It’s the silence between words. It’s the language of the eyebrows. It’s the “Ka pai, boy” from Tā Pou Temara after you drop a new whakataukī in your whaikōrero. It’s the buzz of participating in haka pōwhiri with hundreds of others from your iwi. It’s feeling the hairs on the back of your neck when you experience the spiritual force of karanga. It’s mimicking the way the old people spoke with their unique dialect. It’s all of those references that are expressed in our unique culture of oral literature that make it rich and bring it to life.
At a time when we’re easily overwhelmed and distracted by over-stimulating content and tech, we can forget to make time for verbal te reo Māori interactions. Despite what’s happening in the world and in Aotearoa, we must keep striving to engage with our reo in a physical setting as much as possible, with safe social-distancing measures.
Te reo exists today because our ancestors, elders and parents fought for it. Learning is one way we can practise our gratitude, and keep it alive by passing it on. We must weave te reo back into the fabric of our homes, letting it spill out of the mouths of our babies when they’re singing along to Te Nūtube, Pipi Mā and Moana, resonating from the bathroom with shower-singing confidence. Revitalising te reo can only be achieved through the collective.
For those just starting out, or thinking about embarking on that journey, know you’re not alone. Your efforts will not only change your life, but the lives of everyone you interact with. Be that person your friends are comfortable practising new kupu or sayings with. Be that person in your whakapapa who revitalises te reo for your mokopuna. Be that person in your whānau who carves the pou tokomanawa so it remains unwavering. Be that person who enables others to carve their own. Be that person who holds te reo Māori in your home.