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Why this Pākehā is learning te reo Māori

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Māori language student Peter Calder explains why, for a Pākehā, learning te reo is a great adventure and a small gesture. 

There was a time when, asked why I bothered learning Māori, I would reply, as politely as I could manage, that anyone who felt the need to ask the question would probably not understand the answer.

In hindsight, it seems glib, even faintly patronising, and I’ve stopped saying it. The classic mountaineer’s response – “Because it’s there” – seems more apt. But I hardly need to make either response, because these days, the question seldom comes up. This year, in some centres, Māori-language beginners’ courses were so oversubscribed that those on waiting lists, some as long as 300, would have to wait until next year or beyond.

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Clumsy attempts

I have lost count of the number of times I have begun the process of trying to develop some command of the first language spoken in these islands. I dabbled at university and, later, at teachers’ college in the 1970s. I tried to make myself inconspicuous at the back of the hall during the lunchtime kapa haka sessions at the first school I taught at, praying that no one would notice my clumsy attempts to imitate the fluid grace of those in front.

Several attempts at night class followed, notably in 1990, when I made it something of a personal project to mark the sesquicentenary of the Treaty of Waitangi. But then, and each other time, my commitment teetered and then toppled.

Looking back, I think the reason for that was a sort of cognitive dissonance that, I suspect, most Pākehā – supporters and opponents alike of more widespread use of te reo – feel when they step into te ao Māori: I found myself in a world that was familiar to me, yet full of unknown elements. My ignorance made me uneasy, despite the warmth of the welcome that greeted my desire to learn.

A few years ago, I signed up again. It was hardly the boots-and-all commitment of full-time, full-immersion, but this course, of two two-hour sessions a week, felt pretty full-on. They carved through the material; I had to do homework, assignments, exams. In year two, speaking English in class was discouraged; in year three, it was, at least technically, forbidden, although the teachers responded kindly to the pleas of this sexagenarian slow learner for the occasional explanation in te reo Pākehā.

Most weeks, one way or another, we found ourselves having to address the class, at moderate length, in Māori. Mostly we stumbled; often we fell; always we got back to our feet and stumbled on, taking strength from our classmates’ cries of encouragement.

I didn’t find it hard. I found it bloody hard. I have learnt several other languages (all European), but learning Māori was a challenge of a different order. Grammar and sentence structure did not obey the rules I was used to; the passive voice (“The fish was caught by me”) was commonly preferred; many concepts were not easily understood as I continued to think in translation, as it were, trying to approach Māori as if it were just English with different words.

Add to that the declining capacities of the ageing brain to absorb new information, and it felt like I was really up against it. I could still remember French and Latin vocabulary and grammar I learnt at 13, but would forget Māori words and phrases I had learnt the day before.

Yet slowly, I began to come up with phrases, then sentences. I could sometimes say what I wanted to say, even if it meant making up my own words. This led to hilarious moments: “whare mate” joins the words for “house” and “sick” in a way that I thought would do service as “hospital” but if I had been to more tangi, I would have known that the whare mate is where the tūpāpaku (the body of the deceased) is laid out.

“Rakiraki” means duck; “rakuraku” guitar. I won’t forget those words in a hurry because I once proudly told the class that I can play the duck. The laughter that greeted my howler made my cheeks burn, but not for long, because it was so affectionate. If there is one surefire way to endear yourself to everyone in a Māori setting, it’s to laugh along when you’re the joke.

Beyond the blunder, and even beyond the occasional glimmers of competence, I noticed I was learning something other than the language. Gradually, I began to get a sense that a Māori perspective on the world, on society, on each other, on life, death and love, was – sometimes subtly, sometimes hugely – different from my own. An example: the preposition used for past time is the same as the one for “in front of you”, and for future, “behind you”; the past you can see, but the future lies, unknown and unseen, behind.

It may seem a small point, but it is one of many I met and meet daily. “Aroha” cannot be rendered by a single word in English, because the concept, I suspect, simply doesn’t exist in exactly the same way for English speakers: yet it is so central to the notion of being Māori that you will virtually never hear a song that doesn’t contain the word.

Solemn occasions

Here, in short, was a world hiding in plain sight, and inhabited by the people of this, and no other, land. And, like someone driving north or south on a high-speed motorway, not seeing the old, parallel road, hidden behind trees a few hundred metres to east or west, I was pretty much unaware of it.

The protocols of hospitality, the conduct of meetings, the respect accorded to old people, the tolerance shown to kids running around on solemn occasions, the utter unthinkability of being welcomed without appointing one of your number to reply in thanks: none of these can you learn from a book. At some time, you have to stand in that world, and the language is the key to the door leading to it. The phrase in the karakia that we said at the beginning of each class – “toku reo, toku ohooho” (“my language [is] my awakening”) – had more force than I’d realised.

We are frequently assailed with the many reasons why we should not learn Māori: no one elsewhere speaks it; the language is dying; our kids should learn Mandarin or Spanish; all you need is English.

But apart from English, Māori is the only spoken language that, with minimal effort, you can get to use daily in Aotearoa New Zealand. Free resources abound, online, on TV and in educational institutions. You can speak it a bit at home and then venture out into the world.

Te reo Māori is part of what makes us what we are. It’s in our street and place names, in the stories of our mountains and rivers, in our dialect of English, in our public documents.

Expression of respect

Learning language so you can order a cup of coffee on the Left Bank or in Red Square is noble, though it will prove a poor return on the investment of your time. And it’s true that no Māori speaker will have trouble understanding me if I ask in English for a cup of tea.

But I have studied and continue to learn the language because it deepens my sense of who I am. I can trace my ancestry to Yorkshire and Cornwall and Lincolnshire and it strikes me as interesting, but it doesn’t feel familiar to me the way a barbie or a pohutukawa-fringed beach or a haka do. When I’m in England, the locals seem like a very foreign bunch indeed.

I am a specific kind of descendant of the tribes of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, utterly different from the ones who ended up in the US or Australia or Canada, with whom I also sense no commonality. My identity – Pākehā, which I proudly write in the ethnicity box on forms – is defined by its contradistinction to the identity called Māori. I am what I am because Māori are what Māori are.

In short, learning te reo grounds me more firmly as a New Zealander. But it seems worth adding that it’s also a long-overdue expression of respect for a culture that has been endlessly and generously accommodating to me and my forebears. As a nation, we pay lip service to the idea of biculturalism, but, in my experience, few Pākehā have the faintest sense of what it means. Māori have been living biculturally, year in, year out, for more than two centuries.

For a Pākehā, learning te reo is a great adventure and a small gesture: it says, in a quiet voice, steadily growing in volume: “Yes, at last, I have noticed you are here. I see you. And I’m going to try harder to pay attention.”

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.