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Friday, 19 April 2019 02:26 pm

Bringing te reo back to life – three takes on te reo


TE REO: (From left) Ewan Pohe, Chloe Lyall and Tama Kirikiri agree that te reo Maori should be taught to children in New Zealand’s schools. IMAGES: Hayley Gastmeier

EWAN POHE learnt about the War of the Roses and English history at school but nothing of Māori or New Zealand’s past.

He grew up surrounded by Māori culture with grandparents and a father fluent in te reo, but he was raised only to speak English.

“The whole education system for the last 150 years has been assimilationist, where the whole emphasis has been on making Māori into Pakeha.

“Māori were seen to be primitive, backward, and not progressive,” says the Victoria University researcher and tutor.

According to the Māori language commission, at the start of the 1800’s te reo Māori was the dominant language throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand.

By the 1850’s, with more and more European settlers arriving, te reo became the minority language and English dominated.

The Pakeha population exceeded Māori and te reo was confined to Māori communities.

By the mid-1900’s speaking te reo Māori was being strongly discouraged throughout the country.


BILINGUAL: The Pohe family, (From Left) Ewan, Ana, 12, Sue and Georgina, 15, all learnt te reo and now are fluent speakers.

Dr Pohe, of Rongomaiwahine iwi, says it’s sad in today’s context but at the time they thought they were moving forward. Even Māori were discouraging te reo.

“My dad told me it was a waste of time.

“The dominant narrative at the time was that it was in the past.”

Dr Pohe ‘s father now totally supports te reo being spoken and taught, but he says mainstream media keep reinforcing the negative stereotypical aspects of Māori, and racism is still “alive and kicking” in New Zealand.

“And then you have these statistics of Māori in jail, failing the education system, and very poor health.

“So it wasn’t seen as a positive to be a Māori for most of my life.”

It was at age 45, with two young daughters, Georgina and Anahera, and a supportive wife, Sue, that Dr Pohe immersed himself on a journey to be fluent in te reo Māori.

“I went to everything I could go to, all sorts of classes. Night classes, immersion, books, TV, radio, audio, friends, family. You name it, I did it.”

He says it took him a solid three-year commitment to master the language.

Once fluent, he sent his girls to immersion schools and his wife started learning too. Now the whole family has the ability to speak fluent te reo.

Dr Pohe has since built a PHD around his 10 years of Māori language research.

He teaches te reo to beginners at Victoria University, and he and his wife run a mentoring programme for families wishing to incorporate the language into their homes.

“The more I learnt the more I realised it was something I was passionate about.

“It resonated well with me culturally, to the point where I thought this is a good thing for not only me and my family but for all Kiwis who are interested.”

“I want to try and keep alive the Māori cultural identity, and the only way you can do that, to maintain its integrity, is by maintaining the language as a living one.”

At the other end of the education spectrum, pre-school teacher, Chloe Lyall, weaves the Māori culture into her classroom on a daily basis.

In her class stories of Māori myths and legends are told, they practice tikanga (customs and traditions passed down through time) and every morning a group of children will present their mihimihi to the class.

Te reo Māori is constantly incorporated into the classroom conversations and activities, including to welcome, sing, count, name objects, and ask questions.


BICULTURAL FOCUS: Pre-school teacher Chloe Lyall incorporates te reo and Maori customs into her classroom.

“It becomes a way of speaking, and a way of being.”

It was only a few years ago that Miss Lyall discovered she was a descendant of a Māori ancestor of the Ngāi Tahu iwi in the South Island.

But says she does not identify with her tribe because she found out about the connection later in life.

“I wasn’t brought up in that environment.”

Miss Lyall says it is important for the revitalisation of te reo that children are exposed to the language in a positive light.

“If they experience it at a young age then they understand that there is a value placed on it, and that it is of importance.”

All New Zealand pre-schools must adhere to bicultural practices, and have resources that reflect the Māori culture within them, but Miss Lyall says there are no strict guidelines.

“It depends on how passionate the teacher is, and what their personal values are, in terms of how much is actually incorporated into the children’s daily pre-school life.”

Miss Lyall credits her high appreciation of te reo to her teachers training at Te Tari Puna Ora o Aotearoa – a polytech she says is renowned for its bicultural practices.

In contrast to Dr Pohe and Miss Lyall, Tama Kirikiri has spoken Te Reo all his life.

He traces his whakapapa to a number of iwi including Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Konohi, Ngāti Rakaipaaka and Kāi Tahu.

As a child his parents, grandparents and anybody that looked after him would speak to him in Māori.

Despite coming from a supportive Māori background, he and his siblings rarely used te reo to communicate outside the home and marae.

“The climate of New Zealand at the time wasn’t one that encouraged you to use Māori outside of specific occasions.”

Mr Kirikiri, a senior project manager at Ako Aotearoa, says at primary school the only thing positive regarding Māori was if you were singing a Māori song.


KORERO MAORI: Tama Kirikiri says if te reo was embraced by all Kiwis then he has no doubt that the health of the language would increase.

“Everything else was negative.”

Thankfully now there are many people trying, in various ways, to incentivise a change in people’s attitude towards te reo and Māori culture.

But Mr Kirikiri says the health of the Māori language is hard to determine.

“I think that te reo Māori is, amongst the Māori speaking community I know, very healthy.

“But outside of that context it’s difficult to say.”

According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2013, 21.3 percent of Maori could hold a conversation about a lot of everyday things in te reo – a 4.8 percent decrease from the 2006 census.

Stats NZ says there were 91,809 Māori speakers in 2001 and in 2013 there were 92,391.

The Māori population in 2001 was at 329,796, which increased to 396,285 in 2013.

So in proportion, those within the Māori population who had the ability to speak te reo in 2001 was at 28.2 percent, and dropped to 23.7 percent in 2013.

Speakers in younger age brackets are steadily declining while speakers aged over 65 are on the rise as more fluent speakers move into the older age bracket, causing concerns that the language could die out.

For Mr Kirikiri, the answer lies in all Kiwis celebrating the language unique to only our country.

Mr Kirikiri, also a Māori language teacher, says he does not mind where his students come from, but acknowledges there is a common vibe that only Māori are entitled to learn the language.

“My theory is that one of the only things we were able to control to some degree was our language, everything else was taken.

“So what ended up happening was people who were so incensed by what was happening to our people, their response was, ‘no you’re not getting it. You’re not Māori so you’re not having it, this is ours’.”

But Mr Kirikiri says he and many other people think that the only way te reo will survive in Aotearoa is by not only Māori speaking Māori.

“It has to be that everybody in this country realises this is a language of communication, and we actually embrace it as the language of Aotearoa.

“And remove a lot of the traditional stigma that was intentionally created by past governments and western mainstream New Zealand, on Māori things.”

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