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Is te reo Māori on life support or a language about to go mainstream?

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Sally Blundell gauges the health of te reo Māori.

As New Zealanders celebrate Matariki, the Māori New Year is being hailed as an excellent time to resolve to learn te reo. Already, thousands of us are braving these winter nights to file into halls, classrooms or cafes to learn the difference between kia ora and tēnā koe, recite a whakataukī, stumble through a mihimihi or learn how to order two fish and a scoop of chips using the Māori language.

Such is the popularity of learning te reo that beginner classes around the country are at capacity this year. Language courses at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa campuses, says chief executive Jim Mather, have no new enrolments available until 2019-2020.

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Where recently the Māori language landscape was a desert, wrote Ngahiwi Apanui, chief executive of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission)  last year, now it is alive and regenerating.

Auckland University of Technology history professor Paul Moon is not convinced. In his latest book, Killing Te Reo Māori, he likens the current state of te reo to a patient on life support: “Its pulse beats weakly, its other vital signs still appear to indicate that there is (faint) cause for hope, but linguistic atrophy is spreading from the extremities to the core, and the entire body is only being given the semblance of life by a large and cumbersome academic and bureaucratic apparatus, which keeps the essential functions working, but little more.”

Ngahiwi Apanui. Photo/Māori Language Commissioner

If we want people to be able to say a few words or phrases, he says, then those night-time classes achieve those goals, “but that is not the recovery of a language. It’s the everyday model that is at risk. If there are that many fluent speakers, why don’t we hear much of it in shops and farmers’ markets?”

Moon is probably going to the wrong farmers’ markets, says language expert and former Māori Language Commissioner Sir Tīmoti Kāretu.

“But he is right, it does need to be a language you hear everywhere. I realise some people just like to have a dabble and call that enough, but there are also those you put on the path and they decide later in life they want to go further. It’s like going beyond ‘bonjour’ or ‘guten tag’ – I salute those people who come into the culture with a very deep interest.”

Paul Moon. Photo/Adrian Malloch

Kāretu’s new book, He Kupu Tuku Iho, co-authored with fellow te reo expert Wharehuia Milroy, is designed for those well along that path. A series of essays and conversations on Māori language and culture, it is written in te reo. This, of course, is not uncommon, but it is unusual in having no English translation.

Although this will certainly affect the book’s “pathway to the market”, says Auckland University Press publisher Sam Elworthy, “as a university press and a non-profit publisher, it is part of our role to be aspirational. It is absurd in this country that there is close to zero contemporary non-fiction for adults written in te reo.”

Kāretu concedes the book will be out of reach for many people, but the language itself, he says, is a necessary conduit to understanding the ideas expressed. “You need to be familiar with Māori culture to appreciate the points being made. If you read my opening sentence … well, in my opening statement I said to get to know me, you need to know my language and that is the premise I am coming from. I have been preaching that gospel for years. To understand any culture, you need some knowledge of the language of that culture.”

Sir Tīmoti Kāretu. Photo/Tim Whittaker

Signs of life

Statistics suggest that knowledge is not increasing. Te reo Māori is now one of 592 “vulnerable” languages on Unesco’s endangered languages list – not endangered, not extinct, but not safe.

Despite the development of kōhanga reo, Māori immersion schools and tertiary institutions and the growth of Māori radio and television, the 2013 census shows only 21% of the Māori population can hold a conversation about everyday things in te reo, down from 25% in 1996, and enrolments in Māori-medium schooling have fallen. Although the 2013 Te Kupenga survey of Maori well-being painted a slightly more optimistic picture – it found te reo was spoken in the home by just over a third of Māori adults – speaking it exclusively or mostly outside the home was uncommon.

Over the past two years, however, Moon’s bed-bound patient seems to have had a new lease on life. In Christchurch, fish and chip eatery Fush offers customers te reo Māori classes with their fush and chups. Co-owner Anton Matthews is now having to use a school hall to meet demand for the free lessons.

At The Warehouse in Auckland’s Newmarket, checkout operator Ata Marsh speaks te reo to customers to practise her newly acquired skill in the language – chief executive Pejman Okhovat told stuff.co.nz the company had been inundated with positive feedback.

Taika Waititi. Photo/Getty Images

This month, Wellington City Council gave the go-ahead to its new te reo policy, Te Tauihu, to make the language more visible across the city. The policy, feeding into a wider goal for Wellington to become a “te reo Māori capital” by 2040, includes bilingual welcome signs and dual names for the town belt and Botanic Gardens.

Last year, Air New Zealand launched its tohu reo badge, identifying Māori-speaking cabin crew. ANZ branches now offer banking choices in te reo. Spark inner-city billboards in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington have been changed to te reo Māori. Tū, the debut album of teenage thrash-metal band Alien Weaponry, sung mainly in Māori, went straight to No1 on the NZ music charts and has had more than a million streams on Spotify since being released in June.

Filmgoers can now watch Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, with te reo subtitles, thanks to the work of Waititi’s sister, Tweedie, and her team at Matewa Media Trust. Thor follows in the successful wake of Matewa Media’s Māori version of Disney animation Moana, featuring the voices of Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Oscar Kightley, and Tokoroa teenager Jaedyn Randell as Moana.

“This was a way of getting [te reo] into our homes,” says Tweedie Waititi. “Everyone knows the songs – we can guarantee parents will pick up the beautiful words.”

Use it or lose it

As part of Māori Language Week in 2016, RNZ presenters gave greetings and sign-offs in te reo. At the end of the week, then-news chief Brent Edwards said, why stop?

“Something is bubbling away in New Zealand,” says RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson, “and part of our job is to reflect New Zealand to itself. You can’t do that unless you are reflecting our official language and our history. We are not trying to take the high ground, but I do feel we are at the start of something. We are not driving that change, but we are part of its effect.”

Galvanising the increased presence of te reo Māori on mainstream radio and TV is a growing acceptance that speakers do not have to be word perfect, that attempts will be respected and that mispronunciation won’t see you shamed off the airways.

Guyon Espiner. Photo/Tony Nyberg

“Even if it’s a bit clunky, we are getting better,” says Thompson. “We are not there to be perfect speakers of Māori but to use it and see what happens.”

What happened was a barrage of texts, emails and letters supporting or berating the broadcaster’s use of te reo, particularly that spoken by Guyon Espiner on Morning Report. For some, it was too much, too fast – comments made to this magazine showed some felt they were being left behind by the state radio network without the aid of an immediate translation. For others, it was inspirational – as one night-class tutor commented, some new learners cite RNZ as the motivation.

“I try to weave it in in a fairly natural way,” says Espiner. “I’m not crusading. I’m saying this is part of our natural diversity and it is increasing. It’s a beautiful language and it’s the language of the land. Words such as mana, whānau – they are useful words and they can explain the country we are living in.”

Espiner began his “real training” in te reo Māori only last year. Now he sharpens his skills with once-a-week night classes, books, podcasts, Māori TV and any opportunity to talk to fluent friends and family members. His wife, Emma, is rediscovering her Māori language heritage and their daughter, now four, attends a bilingual unit at the local primary school.

“I’m still very much a beginner – I get things wrong all the time, but I like the sound of it and I hope I am doing enough justice to it.”

Listener feedback suggests he is. A review of comments on the use of te reo last December showed about half of the 500 respondents supported the use of Māori on air, a quarter were neutral and another quarter opposed it, some with the codicil that they would be happier if they knew what was being said.

Don Brash. Photo/Getty Images

Te reo resistance

Others are outspoken – “outraged” – in their aversion to the increased use of Māori words and phrases on air. In an opinion piece in the Otago Daily Times last year, Dunedin writer Dave Witherow described how inflicting te reo on the country can foster contempt. Former National and Act leader Don Brash, now spokesperson for the Hobson’s Pledge group, weighed in, telling RNZ’s Kim Hill, “I don’t see any reason why those who speak no Māori at all should have to listen to Guyon Espiner spouting on.”

But “spouting on” is what it’s all about. The more we normalise a language, says Victoria University deputy vice-chancellor (Māori) Professor Rawinia Higgins, the more comfortable we become with it. “Proficiency is not the only measure of a language’s vitality.”

Last year, Te Karere presenter Scotty Morrison and his wife, radio broadcaster Stacey Morrison, released their new book, Māori at Home, an “up-and-go quick survival guide” for those wanting to use te reo in family life. As well as more-formal greetings and proverbs, the book tells learners how to say, “Put the dishes in the sink” and, “Would you like some Weet-Bix?”

“For Māori to survive, it has to be taught at home in an everyday context,” says Scotty Morrison. “Language opens the door, or the portal, to the culture – a lot of Pākehā New Zealanders say learning Māori taught them how to be Pākehā in New Zealand. Despite a lot of government strategies, if you want a language to survive it has to be from the bottom up, and that is the way it should be.”

One of the main obstacles, particularly for Māori men, is what Stacey Morrison describes as language trauma, the sense of whakamā (shame) in not knowing their traditional language.

“It is hard to unwrap, but it can be a very painful experience. I agree with Paul Moon; it does need to be spoken in the home and we want to make that enjoyable and achievable. There are high-level strategies across iwi and the public sector, but the best opportunity is to use te reo every day, like physical fitness. The more we feel confident about it, the more it will lessen the anxiety.”

Shane Jones. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Forcing it

Some say the only way to embed the language in everyday life is to make it compulsory in the classroom. Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has studiously avoided the c-word in talking about te reo, Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta has said it is “only a matter of time” before the language is made compulsory in the school curriculum. This is Green Party policy, but not NZ First’s. “Read my lips,” Shane Jones told news website Stuff in May. “Our party has no ambition to make te reo Māori compulsory in Invercargill or in any other schooling committee.”

Current Government policy calls only for “universal availability” even though last year’s report by the Te Ahu o Te Reo Māori research project, the recipient of $12.5 million in this year’s Budget, recommended steps to make te reo a core curriculum subject within 17 years.

Moon says compulsory te reo Māori not only won’t work, but is also a tacit admission “the language hasn’t got enough good reasons to exist on its own”.

He points to the compulsory school learning of Irish, Welsh, Tamil in the Tamil population of Singapore, and Luxembourgish. In every case, he writes, the use of that language continued to fall.

In his state visit to New Zealand last year, Irish President Michael D Higgins, speaking at the University of Auckland, said he understood why native-language Irish was made a compulsory part of school curriculums, but it was a mistake.

“I am in favour of encouraging people, bringing people to the language rather than forcing it,” he said. “You must encourage and lure them to the language, make the language attractive.”

Kāretu agrees. We are lacking teachers with a high level of competence in the language anyway, so why, he asks, would you squander teachers on people who are not interested? “We do nobody a good service, neither the student nor the school, by offering mediocre competence in the language – I would prefer the language be spoken by a few who speak it well than by every Tom, Dick and Harry who speak it badly. But if people come in as a consequence of their own interest, they will go further.”

Going further will take time. Just as learning a second language takes years to reach a level of fluency, so turning the tide against New Zealand’s staunch and globally unusual monolingualism will take more than a single strategy or census turnaround. “It takes one generation to lose a language – it takes three generations to learn a language,” says Rawinia Higgins. “This is a marathon, not a sprint, but attitudes around te reo are shifting. Increasing visibility and audibility on radio, on ads – it all helps to increase the status of the language. The problem is we put all these different layers on the language: identity, social value, cultural value – we don’t do that with English. But as we start to normalise Māori language in everyday vernacular, embedding it as part of normal life, we are seeing an increase in people’s awareness around it.”

And as long as there are speakers, says Kāretu, the language will not expire on Moon’s hospital bed.

“It will survive. Like all languages, it will have to change to survive, but that strong interest is growing.”

This article was first published in the June 30, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.