This Te Wiki o Te Reo we’re sharing the stories of New Zealanders who have challenged themselves to learn te reo Māori. Today: musician Anna Coddington (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa) writes about doing it for your tamariki.
My journey into learning te reo Māori begins like many of my generation: a grandparent punished for speaking te reo Māori, a parent who was never taught to speak it because said grandparent thought that was for the best, and then us – the generation close enough to the source to feel Māori but monolingual beyond the basics.
My younger brother was lucky to go through the bilingual Māori unit at Raglan Area School, which wasn’t yet established when my sister and I started school. He is a fluent speaker and has made his career out of that (among some other talents, I guess). My sister, myself and so many others in our generation have landed in various night classes and other facilities to learn the standardised version of te reo Māori that differs slightly, but significantly, to that we would have inherited from our grandparents. And we are the generation tasked with staving off the extinction of the language. No pressure.
For me the sting of all that is exacerbated by the fact that I studied language – its intricacies and importance – to the tune of a master’s degree in socio-linguistics. I have a deep and qualified appreciation of what language means to culture and vice versa. Yet despite the fact that I remember being 11 and swearing to myself that I wouldn’t have kids until I could speak Māori and bring them up with it (I was a strong-minded and probably very annoying child), years went by and I started and stopped and sent it to the back-burner of life until my mid-30s.
I took night classes in my 20s and got good grades, but due to life etc I stopped going and lost what I’d learned kupu by kupu, sentence by sentence.
I also studied Japanese at university and I always thought if I wanted to become fluent in Japanese I could just go live in Japan for a year. Full immersion. Easy! But what about becoming fluent in Māori? Where do I go for that? To the depths of Tūhoe country? Way up north? Some other remote corner of Aotearoa that managed to protect its reo from the stampy boots of colonialism? For the most part, here in New Zealand we speak English only. A nation of dogged monolinguals. So you learn something in Māori class, then, unless you are making (even more of) a special effort to seek out Māori contexts, it is never reinforced.
My own children – now one and almost four – are the catalyst for my reinvigorated haerenga i te reo Māori. When my older son was ready for daycare I nervously went to the local kōhanga reo and enquired about him starting there. I bumbled self-consciously through lots of questions and answers in Māori, then had a meeting with the head teacher in English and sat down with my partner to decide: do we do the easy thing and keep him in English education, or do I put myself firmly in the waka and commit to learning te reo so I can give him the reinforcement at home that I know is necessary to attain fluency?
I used to naively think I could plug my child in to Māori medium education and have him come out the other end a fluent speaker. But despite all the kaiako speaking 100% te reo Māori within the kōhanga and whānau doing their best, the kids are all native speakers of English; they speak to each other in English, and they leave kōhanga and speak English. Their comprehension is amazing but to get Māori speakers is a different kettle of ika. It requires reinforcement in other contexts.
Other than the lack of opportunity for reinforcement, the other big barrier to people learning Māori is the whakamā – the shame – of making mistakes. It’s true for learning any language but I believe especially true with Māori because it carries all that extra weight of being an endangered language – if you stuff it up you might ruin the entire future of the language! You might break some ancient tapu and curse all your future generations! And somehow the identity crisis of being Māori yet not speaking Māori is its own special weirdness that could fill a whole other essay – the “not a real Māori” whakamā.
I’m so, so glad I decided to jump in the waka and commit to this haerenga by sending my son to kōhanga. I get the opportunity to practise what I’m learning not only at pick up and drop off but also with my kids at home – the perfect practise pads because they don’t-slash-can’t judge me.
But the further I get the more I realise nobody is judging. Anyone who has gone to the effort to learn te reo Māori has the same whakaaro… they want the language to survive. My reo classes are full of different kinds of people –Māori, Pākehā, Chinese, Indian, old, young, middle-aged – all in the waka for their own reasons and it makes me feel so much aroha. I look at some of them and think, “what reason could you possibly have for being here?!” It really must be cool to kōrero!
For anyone hopping in the waka mistakes are inevitable, but the focus is on the fact that it might be one more speaker to keep the flame burning and pass on the torch.
Without a doubt I have a long (loooooong, long, long) way to go, and progress can be hard. I’m constantly chiding myself for saying things in English that I know I can say in Māori. But life is long. Maybe five years from now, maybe ten, my sister, my brother and I will all be holding conversations with our kids in te reo Māori as easily as we do in English. Hopefully I’m contributing three more speakers to the cause, and perhaps eventually I can even work on my kids’ English dad for a fourth.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.