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The native Mandarin speaker who's translating te reo on television

Lidu Gong.

A native Mandarin speaker, Lidu Gong turned his insomnia into an opportunity to learn te reo Māori, now he's playing an important role at the televised national kapa haka champs this weekend.

Auckland librarian Lidu Gong knows a lot of Māori proverbs. The 64-year-old first started learning them in bed; suffering from insomnia, he was told thinking about something boring would help.

Recalling his failed attempts at learning German and Japanese in his 20s, he was convinced nothing was more boring than learning a new language, so he took on te reo Māori as a sort of therapy, but it inadvertently changed the course of his life.

Eight years later, he’s about to translate Te Matatini kapa haka championship finals, from te reo into Mandarin for Maori Television, making Māori culture more accessible to Mandarin speakers.

Gong, who moved to New Zealand in 1996 speaking Mandarin and little English, says proverbs are his favourite way of learning te reo, and it’s much easier to learn than English.

“I turn off the lights and the first thing I do is to try to recall the proverb – not mechanically – I reflect on the meaning.”

He calls it “heart learning”.

“Through learning whakataukī [proverbs], I’m living a fuller life… It comes through to my life, my work.”

Read more: How learning new languages boosts your brain & keeps it young

The meanings behind the proverbs, many of which there are equivalents in Mandarin, have been a powerful tool for Gong, turning his job into something more than a tool to make money.

“Working is the way of living rather making a living, money is secondary. What matters is why I work.”

Gong first used this type of learning, ignoring the grammar rules and rote learning style, while teaching English as a second language to new immigrants, when he decided to apply it to his own life.

He has since supplemented his late-night sessions with classes and now uses te reo daily in his job at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in Mangere, for example, to lead the karakia at meetings.

Gong considers te reo his ‘wairua’ [spirit] language.

“Learning Te Reo to me is a spiritual exercise and I have been transformed through learning it in a holistic way.”

He says he supports learning te reo in schools: “Learning and teaching another language is not just for the sake of the language but to be a culturally competent person.”

 “When you learn a language you enter another world, it’s an eye opener.”

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