Two years ago, Haider Khan started his te reo Māori journey. Since then, he says, a new world has opened up for him, and he’s uncovered connections that he’d never noticed before.
Haider Khan was inspired to take up te reo Māori at precisely the wrong time. After hearing a coworker at Spark delivering a mihi to open a conference, he describes feeling as though the words, though he didn’t understand their meaning, were calling to him specifically.
“He spoke with such resonance and it was more than just a foreign language, it was as if he was presenting himself for a reason. I thought he was speaking to me.”
But being the early 2000s, te reo Māori learning resources were few, and Khan found it hard to find a place to start. Then he moved to Dubai and his language journey was stopped before it began. When he and his family moved back to New Zealand three years ago, it didn’t take long for Khan to once again decide to start learning the language. In the two years since his first conversational Māori class, he’s discovered more about the history of Aotearoa and formed his own connection to the land.
“Learning te reo opened up new facts for me. I never knew that it was only in ’87 that it became an official language. Talking to some of my fellow students who are Māori, there was another revelation about how their tipuna were told not to speak the language, and that whole sense of colonialism came directly at me.”
His childhood in Pakistan, in a military family dealing with the hangovers of imperialism, meant that the sense of cultural displacement many Māori in Aotearoa felt resonated with Khan. He immediately drew parallels between te reo Māori language suppression and the government’s attempts to suppress the Urdu language in Pakistan, which he had encountered as a child.
“I grew up in a family where English was our first language, but luckily the majority of people spoke the native language, Urdu, so it could never be stamped out. The colonists created classes of society in Pakistan so suddenly I was drawing parallels. There is no class that has been created here as such but there’s an evident divide between Pākehā and Māori.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Spark NZ to highlight their Kupu app – to learn more and to download Kupu, click here.
Māori cultural values were another place Khan saw huge overlaps with his upbringing in Pakistan. The Māori value of manaakitanga, the idea that it’s a blessing to have and care for guests, is one he recognised.
“In a strange way, rather than a guest saying thank you, it’s [the host’s] job to say thank you for bringing this prosperity into our lives. That filters through the culture. When I started learning about te reo Māori and seeing things from the Māori world view, all of these things started becoming clear.”
Part of learning a new language is the inevitable moment you’re asked to stand up and say something, and Khan says that’s an aspect that still scares him sometimes. When he first began learning he was intimidated by the prospect of getting something wrong and offending the culture he was trying to honour.
But he’s found the complete opposite when sharing his reo, with Māori people encouraging him to continue his learning journey as part of a wider effort to normalise and revitalise the language nationwide.
“What I got back in return was a sense of gratitude, that they felt proud that someone was learning their language and that’s amazing, because usually when you try to learn something new you feel awkward. The regeneration of the language and the tikanga – I am part of the movement, and I feel really privileged that I’m on this journey.”
Khan gives a lot of thanks to his workplace, Spark, for supporting his journey and for developing apps like Kupu, which helps people to learn Māori vocabulary using AI technology.
“Kupu for me has been the fun introduction that merges technology and the fascination of learning a new language. To say it’s magical comes pretty close, because by using AI, the app recognises my quest to expand my vocabulary,” explains Khan.
A lot has changed from the early 2000s when he first tried to learn te reo. Now a search for ‘Māori’ on the app store heralds dozens of hits for reo learning, from children’s games to apps for conversational reo Māori for business.
“All of these apps play a role, they’re tools and they’re a lot of fun and I think now te reo Māori is being looked at more deliberately. Previously I had a sense that it was an afterthought, now I think people are understanding their obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”
Khan’s found a greater sense of place in New Zealand through learning te reo, and he compares the feeling of discovering that connection with the land to walking through Manhattan.
“That’s a concrete jungle and it was all built by humans, but it tells a story because of all of the struggle that’s happened there. We don’t have that here but we have a different connection, it’s as if the land speaks to you. This sense is different here, at one end of the spectrum the sense is around injustice and on the other hand it’s about community, that we need to come together and identify ourselves with being people of the land. I’m finding my place, so to speak.”
He’s proud to be part of growing number of people taking up te reo Māori learning and encourages everyone who’s thought about giving it a go to have a look at the many ways the language can now be learnt, so we can stick it to the colonists who thought they could make te reo Māori disappear.
“We are in an awesome time in Aotearoa, with so many people at the political front as well talking about it – whoever thought te reo Māori would be dying a slow death will be turning in their grave, because it ain’t.”
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