Who are the politicians making an effort to learn te reo Māori?

by Sally Blundell / 12 July, 2018
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, NZ First leader Winston Peters, Corrections and Crown/Māori Relations Minister Kelvin, Davis, Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare. Photo/Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, NZ First leader Winston Peters, Corrections and Crown/Māori Relations Minister Kelvin, Davis, Whānau Ora Minister Peeni Henare. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Te reo maori politicians
A lot of good intentions, a heck of a lot of modesty, but not much te reoYou won’t hear a lot of Māori spoken in Parliament, but a tally of the te reo competency of politicians past and present shows many are trying to brush up their language skills.

Former Prime Minister Sir Bill English was able to begin his speeches on marae by speaking in fluent Māori, without notes, for about five minutes.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern cannot have a conversation in te reo Māori, but is “leaning heavily” on Scotty Morrison’s books to improve her skills. Corrections and Crown/Māori Relations Minister Kelvin Davis can hold a conversation in te reo, but doesn’t describe himself as fluent. “As a second-language learner, I miss some nuances – that’s a difference between a competent speaker and a native speaker.”

Davis is not alone in his diffidence. Minister Willie Jackson learnt te reo at school and from his father but not, he says, to a level of fluency. As an adult, he made a commitment to develop it further so he could raise his children as Māori speakers and, as a Māori broadcaster, “be a champion of the language”.

Ministers Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare both grew up speaking te reo, but, says Henare, it’s still important to keep learning new words, new idioms.

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson learnt the language as an adult. Her grandmother was a native speaker, but “had the language literally beaten out of her”. Today, Davidson can hold a conversation in te reo, but does not consider herself fluent. “I consider myself a beginner. I always cringe listening back to my reo in the media and hearing the mistakes, but I’m also learning and getting better every day.”

Co-leader James Shaw can’t hold a conversation in te reo, but tries to incorporate the language in his speeches and is focusing, he says, on improving his pronunciation.

Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta, National Party leader Simon Bridges, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, Act leader David Seymour, Labour Minister Willie Jackson, Green Party co-leader James Shaw. Photo/Getty Images (Simon Bridges photography by Hagen Hopkins)

Māori Development Minister Nanaia Mahuta, National Party leader Simon Bridges, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, Act leader David Seymour, Labour Minister Willie Jackson, Green Party co-leader James Shaw. Photo/Getty Images (Bridges by Hagen Hopkins)

Winston Peters didn’t wish to comment, but NZ First deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau says, although he can’t have a conversation in te reo, he can understand “about 60%” of what is spoken by his elders. “I need and want to do a full immersion … It’s who I am, the language is part of who we are.”

National Party leader Simon Bridges declined to comment, but earlier this year told TVNZ he had tried to learn about four or five times and would love to have that skill: “Maybe one day that’ll be something I’ll pick up.” His deputy, Paula Bennett, isn’t learning, and isn’t planning to learn, “but I am happy to see that more people are embracing and learning te reo”.

Act leader David Seymour took up lessons last year, but the election campaign “wiped them out”. As part of his background is Ngāpuhi, he says, “it would be nice to speak a language of some of my ancestors”.

How other countries are moving to save their languages

By the end of this century, more than half of the world’s 7000 languages are expected to become extinct. According to the Catalogue of Endangered Languages, nearly 30 language families have disappeared since 1960. On average, a language dies every four months.

But languages have been saved from extinction. Although most of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia have “gone to sleep”, according to one native speaker, indigenous languages have now been introduced to the New South Wales school curriculum and are increasingly being offered at tertiary level.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed his Government to a new Indigenous Languages Act to ensure the preservation, protection and revitalisation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit languages.

After nearly a century of being banned in public schools, the Hawaiian language is being taught at 19 language-immersion sites around the American state. Cornish, the language of the southwestern tip of England, is one of nine languages listed by Ethnologue reference guide to the world’s languages as “reawakening”.

Hebrew, although long used as a language of prayer, literature, commerce and scholarship, was not spoken as an everyday tongue for some 2000 years until revived by eager Zionists more than a century ago.

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

Latest

The future of gangs in New Zealand
101322 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z Social issues

The future of gangs in New Zealand

by Philippa Tolley

Best of RNZ: Gangs have been a feature of New Zealand society for more than half a century. Philippa Tolley takes a look at what future lies ahead.

Read more
How some Germans are countering the extremist views of the far-right
101320 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z World

How some Germans are countering the extremist view…

by Cathrin Schaer

Germans face a familiar dilemma in finding ways to oppose the views of the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

Read more
White Noise: Who is shaping Auckland's future?
101439 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z Auckland Issues

White Noise: Who is shaping Auckland's future?

by Kate Newton

Some Aucklanders have more say in their city's future than others.

Read more
Stephen Fry revisits the world of the Ancient Greeks in Heroes
101242 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z Books

Stephen Fry revisits the world of the Ancient Gree…

by Lauren Buckeridge

In his delightful way, Stephen Fry dips back into the ancient world with more stories of tests, quests and feats of old.

Read more
Comedian Jo Brand on the benefits of not giving a toss
100970 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Profiles

Comedian Jo Brand on the benefits of not giving a…

by Diana Wichtel

Jo Brand’s deadpan style is deceptive, as some blokes have discovered to their very public cost.

Read more
Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that stays within the white lines
101345 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Movies

Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that…

by James Robins

Green Book joins a long tradition of civil-rights era movies that barely scratch the surface.

Read more
How I caught Marie Kondo's tidying up bug
101329 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Television

How I caught Marie Kondo's tidying up bug

by Diana Wichtel

Four episodes into Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, something snapped.

Read more
The vital importance of full sleep cycles
100962 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Health

The vital importance of full sleep cycles

by Mark Broatch

It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep, says University of California professor of neuroscience and psychology Matthew Walker.

Read more