The first phrase of conversational Maori I learned was, “Haere mai kare, whengua tō ihu.” (“Come here darling, blow your nose.”) It was our first time at kōhanga reo and I was new to the community and with a four-year-old and a new-born, keen to make new friends and learn te reo Māori at the same time.
While my journey as an akonga has staggered along over the years, with night classes and formal classes and less formal coaching, my daughter has, since her very first weeks at kōhanga, been surrounded by the reo for her entire life. We have been connected to our community marae and also to our ancestral marae; her first six years at school were in a bilingual unit where she excelled academically and stepped up as a leader as she moved from teina to tuakana. I’ve loved watching her with her kapa haka group – her waiata ā-ringa fluid and mesmerising, her blue eyes making her pūkana arresting and fierce. She proved adept at mau rākau and at a very young age passed the first two levels of training in taiaha.
She took te reo as a subject every year of high school and by the time she reached her senior years she decided to take te reo Māori for NCEA. For her level one studies, two years ago, she was in a class of year 11,12 and 13 students all with various competency levels in the language. One particular student, having been raised in the bosom of Ngāti Hine, was fluent in the reo which helped the other students immeasurably.
But by the next year most senior students had left and the others had decided to drop the language, with some transferring to a course in Māori Performing Arts. A scheduling clash meant that my daughter couldn’t take that course and by this time she was the only senior te reo student left in the school. Consequently her classes were conducted by Skype via ‘harbournet’ with a teacher and students based elsewhere. Despite this she passed all her subjects by July so that she could take up a student exchange in Argentina for the last five months of the year.
Ellen Wright and my daughter Matariki Roche age 5 in their first year at school. She returned home in December, a fluent speaker of Spanish despite never having studied it at school. She said her first few months in her host country were very difficult but the full immersion experience meant she needed to learn the language to communicate.
She knows now how to be fluent in another language and is becoming increasingly frustrated that even after all these years she is not confident enough to hold a conversation in te reo and has no peers at school at her own level to practise with anyway. This year, her last year at school, she is again the only student at a senior level taking the subject and she gets one hour of formal teacher time a week.
Her school is actually really supportive but also concerned at the drop in the level of pick-up of te reo. Around 17% of the school roll are Māori and yet there are only nine students signed up to learn in the junior year groups. That means that by the time they reach their senior levels it is likely that only one or two of them will continue – and they will face the same sense of isolation that my daughter is experiencing.
We know that many of them are keen to learn but are put off by the academic way the subject is taught, with assessment occurring through reading and writing in Māori. Te reo is an oral language, best taught kanohi ki te kanohi, so assessing the language through written assessment is culturally way out of context. But this is how the curriculum works and while this means that students can learn the vocabulary and the grammar of the language and pass the subject, they still may not be fluent speakers.
I think the real answer is for te reo Maori to be taught at all schools at all levels for all students. We need more people to learn our official language(s) and to use it in everyday life, not just during Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori.
I am confident that my daughter has the determination – and she is lucky our family has the resources to give her every opportunity – to become fluent in te reo. She has just joined a full immersion weekly conversation group of adults that meet in our community every Sunday, and we are exploring other full immersion out-of-school options. And this week, even though I’m quite nervous about it, I have enrolled with Te Wānanga o Raukawa for an online course as well.
But I remain haunted by her tears of frustration, which may be shared by many others across the country, when she once told me that, “It shouldn’t have to be this hard to learn my own language.”