Why these Aucklanders spend their nights learning Te Reo Maori

by Liam Ratana and Jeremy Hansen / 30 August, 2017
Photography/ Vicki Leopold

Nightclass students inside the Lyonel Grant-designed wharenui at Unitec’s Mount Albert campus.

For nightclass students learning Te Reo Māori in their spare time, every week is Māori Language Week.

It’s been three decades since Te Reo Māori became an official language of New Zealand.  Yet the total number of people speaking Te Reo has continually decreased since 2001. What is the place of Te Reo Māori in modern New Zealand, and how do we go about saving it? Rotorua has just become New Zealand’s first bilingual city; should Auckland follow suit?

At Unitec’s Mount Albert Campus, hundreds of Māori and non-Māori students turn up to free classes every weeknight to do their bit to help Te Reo Māori thrive. We asked a few of them why they are studying the language, and what they gain from doing so.

Tania McNamee

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I work at Unitec looking after our kaumātua and also the transformation director for Māori. So I wanted to learn a bit about the culture and everything. Plus, I’m married to a Rarotongan, and the languages are quite similar.

What have you gained from doing the classes? Being able to understand what’s being said around me at work.

Ameria Maniapoto-Afoa

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I am Māori myself. I wanted to get to know my own culture. Some of my family had been brought up around it, unfortunately I was not.

What have you gained from doing the classes? I’ve been getting a deeper understanding of my own culture. Building on what I already knew.


Julie Zhu

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I knew most of the grammar and some rules regarding Te Reo, but was still lacking confidence. I started attending with the hope of gaining enough confidence to be able to speak to large groups of people.

What have you gained from doing the classes? I’ve been surrounded by people who want to learn Te Reo Māori and who see the importance of ensuring its survival. I’ve gained a desire to help preserve something special to this land and the Māori culture. Learning Te Reo Māori is a way to access Te Ao Māori.

Oshanya Byles, Shane Hannam, Sharon Hannam, Wena Bold, Paula Bold-Wilson (left to right)

What made you want to study Māori? 
Paula Bold-Wilson: Because we are Māori. Our language is our culture, and our culture is Te Reo Māori. We made a decision to come and learn it as a whānau and do it all together, so that we can learn our language. Then we can support each other at home and speak Te Reo Māori to one another. It’s about revitalising Te Reo Māori within our whānau. My daughter is fluent but she complains because nobody will speak to her at home; I need to support her if I’m going to encourage her in bilingual education

Robert Champion

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I had been interested for a while. I felt like I needed to engage with the Māori culture more. In March I hiked through Te Urewera: it had incredible scenery, yet I felt like such a stranger in my own country. I felt like I didn’t know this [the Māori] world at all. I didn’t feel like a real New Zealander basically. I felt like I should start to learn more about all things Māori. It’s not much, but it’s the first step.

What have you gained from doing the classes?My pronunciation has improved tenfold. I feel comfortable transitioning from English to Māori and vice-versa. I can pronounce place names properly now as well.

Should Te Reo Māori be universally compulsory in schools? One hundred percent I think it should be. I’m almost surprised that it isn’t already.

Cheyenne Talaga

What made you want to study Māori? I’m Māori but my family don’t speak any of the language. My nana used to speak Māori, but where she came from they weren’t allowed to speak it at school, and they didn’t speak it at home because they were told not to. That’s why I have lost it. I’m also Samoan but I don’t know how to speak that. When I go up north I have never known what they’re saying, and I just want to get an understanding. My cousins can speak Māori and sing. I’ve always wanted to do it, sing in Māori. At my Papa’s funeral, everyone had to get up and do a speech or a kapa haka, and I felt really out of place because I didn’t know what to do. I’m really trying. It’s really hard, learning a new language. I’m doing this with my aunty. I’m going up north soon so I have to do more homework.

Cait Johnson

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I had wanted to take them for a while. As someone who lives in Aotearoa, I feel like I have a responsibility to learn it.  I think it’s an important tool to be able to use to learn more about the history and culture.

What have you gained from doing the classes? Learning history through a Māori  lens. I feel like this is how people would have learnt things for hundreds of years. It’s cool to be learning in that way.

Mariana Basilio

What made you want to study Māori? I love languages. I speak Portuguese, Spanish, French, English – I felt like I wanted to learn something that was unique and not many people speak so I maintain the culture. I also work as an environmental consultant, and there are a lot of Māori [values] that should be used in conservation and restoration. Under the Resource Management Act we are supposed to incorporate their values, and there is no better way of learning how to do that than doing a course like this.

Chris Hutchinson

What made you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? Cait (Johnson, also pictured), my girlfriend, started coming first. It’s a part of our culture – I have Māori heritage myself, but I’ve always felt like there was something missing. So now I’m here to learn it. I’m an artist and I feel like a part of my job and passion is to deliver things that provide a bicultural understanding of New Zealand.

Indigo Paul

What made you want to study Māori? I’m ashamed I don’t speak it and that our country doesn’t speak it. I get a sense of a community from people who are coming together to do something as a community. I was so impressed by how many people are not Māori or Pākehā – they’re immigrants who are invested in wanting to really plant roots in this country, and they recognise and acknowledge that these roots have to include Māori.

Rodney Moore

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I’m on the road for about two to three hours every day. I wanted to do something productive and thought to myself I should learn Te Reo Māori. However, I needed more than just a CD and a book. A friend suggested I start attending the classes, which made sense to me, and here I am.

What have you gained from doing the classes? I had never been inside a wharenui, or on a marae before. Being here and being a part of this fantastic building, I’m gaining an understanding of it all. I’ve been improving on my words and phrases and have realised that we do use quite a lot of Māori words in everyday conversation anyway. If something’s broken, we generally say it’s ‘pakaru’. Telling someone to wait, we say ‘taihoa’. I’ve been learning about something which is already a part of us.

Jeremy Roundhill

What made you want to study Māori? I timata au ki te ako i Te Reo Māori kia tautoko ai i te mana motuhake o ngā iwi Māori Ahakoa tōku Pākehātanga, kei te tautoko tonu au i te rangatira me te mana motuhake o ngā iwi taketake o te motu nei.

[I began learning Māori to support the independence of Māori. Although I’m Pākehā, I still support the sovereignty and independence of the indigenous tribes of this country.]

What do you get out of studying the language? Ehara taku mana i te mana takitahi engari takitini. Nā reira, hei aha te hua māku, ko te mea nui ko te oranga o Te Reo.

[I don’t stand alone in Te Reo. What I get out of learning it isn’t of great concern. The more important thing is keeping Te Reo alive.]

Haylea Muir

What made you want to study Māori? Three things. As a landscape architect at Isthmus Group, with our design values around the relationship between land, people and culture, it’s a really important to do it truly and wholeheartedly. I’m doing it here at Unitec because just before I graduated, Lyonel Grant had started carving the wharenui, and I’d never seen it finished. And learning Te Reo was something I spoke to [my late colleague, architect] Rewi Thompson about.

I thought I was too busy and too tired, and then losing him, it made it really important to come. It’s really special because he designed the classroom here.

Rajika Vyas

What made you want to study Māori? I find the culture really interesting. Coming from India 17 years ago, I find a lot of similarity between Māori culture and my culture: respecting the elders, the passing down of stories, staying in groups, sharing meals and living in extended families, and having similar historical backgrounds – being ruled by the British over a long time, and fighting in the freedom movement. I’m from the north part of India, the foothills of the Himalayas, a small town called Ranipur. In school we learned the spelling of whakarewarewa, and had a story of how people cooked their food in the hot pools. I found that it’s really important to be bilingual – I made sure my child learnt his mother tongue. This was an opportunity to be more acquainted with the Māori culture and language.

Hana Judd

Why did you start taking Te Reo Māori classes? I call myself a New Zealander, but I didn’t have a connection with the Māori culture or language. I was embarrassed by that fact. It’s a beautiful language and I wanted to get to know more about it. I emigrated from Ireland when I was four years old. Over there, they have both Gaelic and English on every signpost. Even in brochures, things are explained in Gaelic first, and then in English. I think New Zealand should try to emulate something similar.

Should Te Reo Māori be universally compulsory in schools? Yes. I think it should be compulsory throughout all our schools.

Why do you think that? It helps connect us to our history and ourselves. It’s inspiring and incredibly beneficial for a child to grow up a bilingual native.

What has been your biggest challenge with the language so far? I guess I thought I was better at pronunciation than I actually am. I grew up singing a few Māori songs and using the odd word here or there, and thought my pronunciation was spot on. Once I started talking to others in my class, I realised I needed to practise more. Te Reo is all around us every day, and I’ve been trying to speak it outside the classroom also.

Anne Joe and Toni Cherrington

What made you want to study Māori? Toni Cherrington: I studied quite a few cultures and languages, and never really embraced Māori even though I’m Māori.

Why is that? Maybe it’s down to negative stereotypes around learning or being Māori.
I think as I have gotten older, more people are learning Māori. It’s more socially acceptable. There’s less shame in being Māori and learning Māori.

What made you want to study Māori, Anne? Anne Joe: I guess I come from that generation when my parents couldn’t speak Te Reo. There was a break in the language for us. It’s about embracing your culture for us. I’m so enjoying it, more than I initially thought I would. I don’t want to miss a class.

Ka mihi ki a takuta Lyonel Grant, te ohu raranga me wana kaitautoko katoa. Me nga mihi ki te ahika o Te Marae o Te Noho Kotahitanga i whakaae mai kia whakaatu i nga whakaahua nei.

Paperboy happily acknowledges the work of Lyonel Grant, the weavers, his support team and Te Noho Kotahitanga for allowing use of images of the whare at Unitec.

To find out more about Unitec’s free night classes in Te Reo Māori, visit unitec.ac.nz/maori. Māori Language Week runs 11–17 September, 2017.


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