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Life-long commitment to language

Life-long commitment to language

The day a young Wiremu Doherty started school he stood out from his fellow Maori students - he could speak Maori.

Unlike most of his peers, Wiremu was taught Maori, and not English, as a first language at home. The first time he encountered English was when he started school at the age of five.

Being able to speak Maori, but not English, was unusual for children of Wiremu’s generation. At the time, according to Wiremu, in the late 1960s and early 1970s many parents believed their children would benefit more from learning English as opposed to Te Reo.

Wiremu says the use of Te Reo in the education system had been actively discouraged and “the teachers at my school could not quite believe there were people who could not speak English. This shows the lack of importance Maori played, for some, in the school system at the time.”

Before starting school Wiremu lived in the remote Tuhoe iwi community of Nga Putahi in the Urewera Ranges, where he never encountered anyone who spoke anything but Maori.

“We were completely isolated from the outside world, with no television or radio. Everything I learnt was from a Tuhoe perspective. I did not even know people spoke any other languages apart from Maori.”

This early grounding in his native tongue ignited a sense of pride in the language in Wiremu, and also laid the foundation for a career promoting the use of Te Reo Maori.

After years as a teacher and principal at kura kaupapa or Maori language schools, Wiremu is now head of Te Tari Matauranga Maori, Manukau Institute of Technology’s Department of Maori Education, and is currently completing a PhD in Matauranga Maori.

Wiremu feels he is privileged and fortunate to have learnt Te Reo Maori as a first language when many of his peers did not have the opportunity.

“My generation had lost the language,” he says.

Although Wiremu is pleased with the current resurgence in the use of Te Reo Maori, he believes much has been lost from the language. “Much of the richness, nuances and vibrancy of a language is lost if it is learnt as a second language.”

Modern-day Maori has a different sentence structure, which has been influenced by English, than when Wiremu learnt the language, he says.

“When I hear young people speak Maori, I hear Maori words, but English sentence construction.”

However, Wiremu acknowledges that such changes are part of the ongoing development of a language. “Languages have to evolve and develop to survive.”

Events such as Maori Language Week - for which Te Tari Matauranga is spearheading celebrations at MIT from 24 July - are important in keeping the language vibrant and alive, says Wiremu.

“Maori Language Week is a great start. I hope it helps change people’s perception of what Te Reo Maori means for New Zealand.”

MIT’s Te Tari Matauranga Maori offers a range of programmes that emphasise the importance of biculturalism and an understanding of Maori in the workplace, including diploma and certificate courses in Maori language immersion.

Maori Language Week has been celebrated since 1975 and is coordinated by Te Taura Whiri i Te Reo Maori/Maori Language Commission, Te Puni Kokiri/Ministry of Maori Development and Te Kahui Tika Tangata/Human Rights Commission.


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