5 Reasons Why I Didn’t Grow Up Speaking Te Reo Māori

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In 2017, I had the honour and privilege of attending the Māori Language parade for Te Wiki o Te Reo. My eyes woblbled as I watched the thousands of tamariki, both Māori and non-Māori, showing their aroha for te reo in a way that was the opposite of what I experienced as a child. What I saw at the Māori Language parade gives me hope that my generation will be the last to grow up not speaking te reo in their homes and schools. This my story.

I have a paralysing fear of speaking te reo Māori.

Literally a kaiako in the Māori Studies department at my university will say ‘pehea koe?’ and my heart will start to palpitate. Beads of sweat run down my forehead and I awkwardly shuffle from side to side as my brain WHURRS frantically to think of anything... ANYTHING to say back.

Normally all my WHURRING brain can come up with is a squeaky and unnatural sounding ‘kei te pai’ at which point I give myself a mental facepalm (seriously is that all you could think of?!) Not kei te ora or kei te (insert anything else) that would make me sound a bit cooler, a bit more proficient in te reo. Possibly the most generic and overused phrase (by beginner learners) in the whole Māori language. Then I try and run off before they ask me something even harder like ‘he aha tō mahi i tēnei rā’ (so many words).

I know that this fear is entirely irrational, and I hope that just the act of putting this into writing might help me overcome this fear. Besides my conversational reo isn't even that bad and I could probably respond with a good answer if I could just get my body and mind to not freeze up like a possum in headlights. 

I think this fear of speaking te reo originates from a thought or feeling that if I can’t speak fluent te reo then I must not ‘be Māori enough.’ I’ve also had experiences throughout my life where I’ve felt judged by non-Māori and Māori alike for not being ‘good enough’ at speaking te reo (which my brain automatically translates to ‘not Māori enough’).

So for those who don’t know why or can’t understand why some Māori are still on their reo learning journey then here is 5 reasons why (there are many more), I didn’t grow up speaking te reo Māori.

1.      My ancestors were punished for speaking te reo

I don’t want to dwell on this one but yes when they were small children my ancestors were strapped for speaking te reo in the native schools. This was a hugely traumatising experience for them and if you want to do any further reading - have a read of the Waitangi Tribunal report on the Te Reo Māori Claim. Then because they didn’t want their children to be punished when they went to school (fair call) they didn’t teach them te reo. Then their children couldn’t teach their children (me) te reo because their parents never taught them. Simple.

2.      The year I was born a number of our family elders passed

An entire generation of our whānau was wiped out the year I was born. They passed in their early 50s-60s. Cigarette smoking played a huge part in this as they were the generation that were told smoking was good for their health (rather than good to line the pockets of tobacco companies). By the time I was a one... there were no fluent Māori speakers left in my immediate whānau. The intergenerational link between fluent Māori speakers and children was broken.

3.      I grew up in an English speaking suburban household 12 hours away from my marae

During the time of urbanisation my dad’s parents moved from Northland to Auckland. This was only a four hour drive from our marae so every summer my kuia would still pack all the tamariki into the car and drive up to the marae. There they would spend their summer camping by the beach. However before I was born my parents moved to Wellington. This is a 12 hours drive from our marae in Northland. Because of this, we never visited.

To make matters worse, we grew up in Tawa, a suburb that boasts a commemorative statue celebrating Elsdon Best. Elsdon Best was a Pākehā ethnographer who spent his life 'researching' Māori and some would argue re-writing our histories. Back then Tawa also had little cultural diversity. That one Māori girl in the class (yup that was me), that one Māori girl in the school musical (yup that was me) and that one Māori school prefect (yup that was me). My whānau was like one little coloured family marooned on a island separated from the roots of our culture, community and ancestral belonging. 

For all the reasons above when other Māori students tell me about how they grew up in their communities or on their marae surrounded by their whānau (especially kaumatua and kuia) I am literally consumed with unnatural green envy. Add in an education that included kohanga reo and kura kaupapa and my eyes begin to glaze over with imagined happiness and I ask the universe please please please can I be reincarnated in my next life as someone who grows up with opportunities to be immersed in their own culture and language. Please and thank you.

4.      My parents approached the board of trustees at a local primary school to be told that ‘there wasn’t enough interest’ to teach Māori students te reo

When I started primary school in the 1990s, the only kura kaupapa in Wellington at that time was in Seatoun. This was about an hours drive each way from our home. So my parents approached the local primary school to discuss the introduction of te reo language classes so that we could learn te reo. However at a board meeting they were told by the principal that ‘there wasn’t enough interest’ to teach te reo to Māori children. I’m guessing that the principal didn’t know about Te Tiriti and that ‘not enough interest’ is NOT a good enough reason to take away the right of tamariki to learn their own language.

Following this my mum single handedly went round all the other schools in Tawa (of which there were 5) to find ONE that would teach te reo. Only one out of the 5 said they would teach te reo if we were enrolled in the school. However this promise to teach us te reo didn’t eventuate into anything. Eventually my mum pulled me out of my COMPULSORY French classes in protest because she didn't understand why they would teach us French but wouldn’t teach us te reo.

Out of utter desperation my parents enrolled me in Correspondence School at the age of 10 to learn te reo. Is learning a language as a child, on your own, through audiotapes and writing the best way to learn to SPEAK a language? I think most experts would agree... probably not.

5.      Back then the Māori language teaching in mainstream schools was dubious at best

When I reached Intermediate School, times had changed (slightly) and there was at least one class where Māori students could learn te reo. This would have been great except for the fact that the teacher who took these classes couldn’t speak conversational Māori herself. She was a Māori PE teacher (possibly the only Māori teacher in the school) who had also been roped in to take the reo classes. Due to her skill level in reo we learnt to do pēpeha (which I had already learnt) and some basic kupu (that I already knew) but as 11-12 year old's that was the extent of our reo language learning.

At College things were a little bit better; in no small part because the teachers had NCEA Māori resources and prescribed assessments/tests. My teacher for reo at College was a Pākeha man, ironically called Mr White. Although Mr White had a lovely heart and tried his absolute best, unfortunately his teaching skills and reo ability was dubious at best and there was very little spoken Māori in our classes. Again I passed the written assessments but didn’t learn much in the way of conversational Māori.

So in the end...

My parents attempts for us to learn te reo as children failed. As I grew up and became an adult this failure to learn my own language continued to haunt me and manifest as thoughts like you are ‘not good enough at te reo’ or you are not good enough at ‘being Māori.’ I carried these negative thoughts into my university studies in te reo where after receiving my first F (ouchies) in a 200 level reo paper I dropped out because I felt that I wasn't going to pass the paper. Whether second language learning of Māori should even be taught at University is another story but I know now that my own unhealthy thought patterns were acting as barriers and obstacles to my learning of te reo.

The power of writing is such that when I re-read this piece it became pretty clear to me that the odds were stacked against us. HUGE tautoko to my parents. They tried their best to give us some form of competent teaching in te reo. They couldn’t speak te reo themselves (for reasons already explained) but they did contribute hours of time and years of volunteering. Mum used to come and sit in all of my intermediate reo classes and help out the teacher - such was the importance that she put on the language. My parents were also founding members of a community kapahaka group in Tawa. Both my parents exhausted all options available to them at the time (except for quit their jobs, uproot the entire family and move to another part of Aotearoa. I can understand with aroha why they chose not to do this with 4 young children). It shouldn’t have been so hard for them to find competent teaching of te reo in their community.

Last year I enrolled and completed a Whare Wananga o Aotearoa te reo course. The next step of my reo journey is to enrol in Te Putaketanga (immersion reo course). I know that this is a lifelong journey and it is important I face my fears and forget about what other people think of me. I know deep down that regardless of whether I can speak fluent te reo... I am Māori. I was born Māori, I have Māori whakapapa. That doesn’t change even though I didn’t grow up speaking te reo. Which was not my fault. Or my parents. I hope with all my heart that my generation will be the last to experience not growing up with te reo in their homes and schools. Because regardless of whether children attend a Kura Kaupapa or another school in their area it is imperative that ALL children in Aotearoa have access to a high quality language learning education in te reo.