Perspectives and personal journeys around learning te reo Māori

Imagine if the All Blacks walked onto the field, and performed the Haka in English. Or if you arrived at a marae, only to be welcomed with a recorded karanga played through a speaker.

As communities advance along with modern society, influenced heavily by technology and the internet, we are seemingly being conditioned to learn and accept things as they are presented to us. However, these things in the majority of situations, lack the language of the land.

As a Māori raised in America, I am reminded of the disheartening phrase, “You’re in America now, speak English.” While I have to agree to disagree with that statement, I do know that the unseen damage it has can be life-altering.

Although never aimed at myself, it is something you overhear constantly. Mumbled under frustrated sighs, or worse, spoken directly to someone. Those moments are ingrained in my brain.

But how does that same phrase play out in any other country you are in? What weight would a phrase like that hold in Aotearoa in reference to te reo Māori?

I have yet to start my journey with te reo Māori, but through curiosity I have taken small steps towards that beginning, and my respect for te reo has grown immensely in the time that I have been here.

In my effort to better understand the role of te reo Māori in our culture, I sat down with Mahuru Robb, to hear about her own experiences and what has influenced her personal reo journey.

Mahuru’s parents were involved in the revival of te reo Māori, marching on Parliament and holding hui’s in their whare when she was young. As a child she attended kōhanga reo, but once in primary school, she felt herself moving away from her Māori identity.

Society has a way of influencing our behaviours, causing us to sometimes turn our backs on who we are in order to ‘fit in’ with who we are told to be.

As Mahuru has gotten older, she began to once again recognise the importance of te reo Māori, and has taken advantage of the opportunities to have her own type of revitalisation with the language.

“I am learning for myself, for my own personal development, and for my future whānau so that my children can walk into a situation and be confident,” she said.

The passion she has for te reo is clear. It is something she openly, but carefully shares.

Mahuru’s mindset is similar to others that I have talked with. Many learning young at kōhanga and through their teenage years choosing a different path, but eventually finding their way back.

Tiaki Coates experienced the same identity hurdles when he was young. As a fair Māori, he turned his back on the culture out of fear of being different. But coming into adulthood, he has since reclaimed his identity and culture and with that, his language.

Tiaki’s partner Madi is from a pākehā family. But her mother raised her with the knowledge that a settler in any foreign country should learn the language of the land, and made sure her children all grew up speaking te reo Māori.

Before their son Tāwhai was born, Tiaki and Madi made the decision to raise him in a total immersion home. So they moved to Whaingaroa to be closer to Madi’s aunties who are fluent in te reo. Māori is the only language spoken to Tāwhai, and is now the main language spoken between the two of them.

They took the opportunity to attend Te Ataarangi, a te reo Māori immersion programme for adults, at Poihakena Marae, and have gone from an English speaking couple to a Māori speaking whānau–which has proven to be incredibly difficult, but equally rewarding.

“We acknowledge that there was a huge battle before us to get the language recognised again,” said Tiaki, “and we see the importance of keeping him close to the language.”

“There is a deep wisdom embedded in the language that will not be brought back into the mainstream culture without people living and breathing it every day.”

Through their journey Madi has found that her biggest teachers have been Neria Mataira who heads Te Ataarangi programme, and their son Tāwhai, with his vast curiosity.

My conversations with Mahuru and Tiaki reminded me that it is okay to be a non-reo speaking Māori. The journey of te reo Māori is an all encompassing, personal journey. It is something you take on step by step at your own pace.

What really caught my attention was the way they spoke about te reo. Māori is an emotional language, through my personal interactions I have witnessed the utmost respect when it is being talked about and shared.

There is a gentleness that radiates from the language that ties us all together, Māori and non-Māori alike. Even as a non-speaker I have experienced this.

“The reo is embedded in the land, and the land is embedded within us,” said Tiaki. If you are from Aotearoa, or you are here visiting, you have probably felt it.

So if you are like me, and have yet to start your own te reo Māori journey, don’t fret. There are so many opportunities for us to learn. It just takes a bit of courage. By doing our part to learn te reo, we help to keep the face of Aotearoa alive.

Reo he tikanga, te ahurea ko te reo. Language is culture, culture is language.

Without the language of the land, we lose our identity. If a language is lost, overtime, cultures will lose their way of life, ceasing to exist.

Karamea Puriri

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