Image: Russell Street / Flickr
In Aotearoa, New Zealand, we lend our voices to the language of our colonisers. The language of the streets is English, the language of the health system is English, the language of business is English – we may be an increasingly diverse society, but our insistence on a monolingual dialogue is a stubborn habit we’ve yet to shake.
Last week was Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori. Or, if I’m going to be cynical, the one week of the year when New Zealand actually remembers that te reo Māori is a living, breathing language. In 2013, 21.3 per cent of Māori were able to speak te reo, down from 25 per cent in 1996.
I’m not part of that 21.3 per cent – as a Te Arawa woman who had a largely Pākehā upbringing – but this week I will begin my reo journey, finally learning the language of my Māori ancestors. It will be hard and I will no doubt struggle, but I am excited to finally begin to understand the beautiful language that speaks to my soul.
Like many other Māori I have felt a sense of shame that I can’t speak the language of our land – and make no mistake, the language of this beautiful country we call home is not English – it is te reo. A nation as breath taking as ours deserves a name like Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud), rather than the recycled moniker New Zealand. Te reo Māori is the language our mountains speak, it is the language best suited to describe our lakes, rivers and forests. Unlike English, it is uniquely ours. Te reo is the only language that truly belongs to New Zealand. That we don’t embrace it widely is both baffling and shortsighted.
And it leads me to question: why is it that we don’t embrace te reo? Many of our most valuable cultural taonga (treasures) rely on te reo Māori. The haka, the powhiri, Pokarekare Ana, and the national anthem, to name a few. Why is it that Pākehā New Zealand comfortably and enthusiastically claims those taonga, but is largely indifferent, and in some cases hostile, to te reo Māori as a whole?
Is it because Pākehā New Zealand lacks a coherent cultural identity and thus finds te reo Māori threatening in some way? Is it because te reo Māori seems inaccessible? Is it unconscious bias and racism?
I ask these questions because I can see absolutely no negatives to learning te reo Māori, whether we are tangata whenua, Pākehā or immigrants. Learning another language has been proven to have many positive impacts upon both a child’s learning and upon the adult brain. Learning te reo may just provide us with another shared strand to weave our communities together, strengthening our connection both to Aotearoa and to each other.
So although Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori is over for another year, te reo Māori is not. Every week could be Māori language week – if only we could find a way to get onto the same page.