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Learning Te Reo: One Word At A Time

Learning Te Reo: One Word At A Time #TeKupu

As Māori Language Week nears, Race Relations Commissioner and Māori language student Dame Susan Devoy says instead of making a maunga out of a molehill we should look to our kids for inspiration.

Tracing my whakapapa or family tree is something I’m looking forward to and there are some awesome people who are going to help me do it. It won’t be easy but we’re a determined bunch so I’m sure we’ll get there. By the time my mokopuna are at school I hope they’ll know a bit more about their whakapapa than their grandmother did.

So I’ve been trying to learn te reo Māori for a year or so now. Trying is the operative word because it’s not easy. Like most Kiwis I’m monolingual, which means I was brought up speaking one language and that language permeated every inch of the nation I call home. I grew up in Rotorua – or Rotovegas as we fondly call our sulphur city – where Māori culture, language and people are a huge part of our identity. But even here in the Bay of Plenty, the stronghold of Te Arawa and Mataatua: the Anti-Anything-Maori mentality is still very strong. A good example right now can be found in Tauranga, where a few are making a maunga out of a molehill over the addition of a macron or a dash over the u in Otūmoetai. One local commentator’s maunga is so huge he’s resorted to profanity - “Arselets”, “dick”, “dicks”, “stupid little dick”. I wrote to him and told him freedom of speech is a right: but his words aren’t about freedom of speech, they’re just offensive. Spelling words properly isn’t about being PC. It’s about spelling. Quite simply this issue isn’t about a Māori name versus a Pākehā name : it’s about the correct spelling of the Māori name. As I understand the changes will take place when the signs need replacing, therefore there’s no burden on the tax payer either. A hugely significant pa site, Otūmoetai is also a major suburb and home to many kids who deserve to know how to pronounce the name of the place they live in. Would the British argue over whether or not to bother spelling or pronouncing Stonehenge or Windsor properly? I doubt it. A newspaper campaign to deliberately mispronounce a word is quite simply pathetic.

When Hinewehi Mohi first sung our national anthem in Māori at a rugby test in England, there were howls of indignation. How dare she! some cried. But 15-years-later, singing God of Nations in te reo is normal and sung loudly and proudly by thousands of Kiwis. Like South Africa , we publically and proudly highlight our national languages before every test. But to give them their dues, the Springboks beat us to it. Four years before Hinewehi sung E Ihowa Atua at Twickenham, the Springboks stood alongside their President, Nelson Mandela to sing their anthem in five of the republic’s eleven national languages.

The centre of gravity of public opinion about te reo Māori has shifted significantly since 1999 and we have many people and particularly our own children to thank. Unlike a lot of their elders, Kiwi kids don’t bat an eyelid at te reo because they know Māori language and culture doesn’t threaten them; our kids know it’s one of the things that makes us Kiwis and our country not just unique, but also totally awesome.


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