Championing a cultural treasure: Sounds good to me

DUNCAN GARNER
Last updated 05:00 26/07/2014

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OPINION: Maori Language Week is designed to be positive and to showcase te reo.

Sadly, it doesn't take much to bring out the haters.

Like the text message I received this week from a radio listener: "I 4 [sic] one don't want my kids coming home talking that shit to me thank you very much."

Herein lies the problem with making te reo Maori compulsory in schools. It simply won't be tolerated or accepted by some New Zealanders. They just don't want to know about things Maori. Sad, but true.

And that's why our political parties aren't forcing the issue. There just aren't any votes in it.

So we continue with our current approach - learn the language if you want, throw some money at it here and there - and let's hope it survives, to some extent.

If we keep following this path the language will die and it's only a matter of time before this happens, warns Waikato University expert Dr Koro Ngapo.

Fewer than 20 per cent of Maori now speak te reo - just four per cent of New Zealand. Yes, we love the All Blacks performing the haka and we love belting out a (mumbled) rendition of Poi E at the pub - but that's not going to keep the language alive.

The danger is we risk losing a crucial part of our culture unless we do something drastic.

So here's my personal story, my connection with te reo - and why I support the language.

I was born into a conservative Pakeha family in 1974. We lived in a white world.

My first memory of anything Maori was playing rugby with a bloke named Reuben Tangiora.

I went to a mono-cultural high school - I can't recall any Maori students or te reo being spoken or promoted as a subject to study. Our teachers and the principal never used the greeting Kia Ora.

My first real connection with things Maori was as a political journalist. We went on to marae, interviewed Maori politicians, the "tight-five" NZ First mob, Tariana Turia and Dover Samuels et al.

Then my experience really changed: I met the mother of my two girls, who are now aged almost 11 and 13. They both speak fluent te reo thanks to their mother.

They both went to kohanga reo and kura kaupapa total immersion Maori schools in Wellington and then Auckland.

A number of my Pakeha friends and family asked me what on earth I was doing. Why bother, they said. They'll never use te reo overseas, it's a waste of time, do something useful, they said.

I barked back at them, citing research that showed it was better for young brains to be learning two languages from an early age than one. And I said it would be easier to learn other languages later on.

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Many eyes glazed over, few listened.

And frankly, it wasn't easy. I always felt like an outsider in someone else's world.

I fully understand why Pakeha feel intimidated by the culture and the language. We're afraid of making mistakes and being mocked for it.

Te reo pronunciation zealots seem to delight in pouncing on people who are trying to learn but make mistakes along the way.

It was hard work, but I hung in there. Just about every household item had a sticker on it with the Maori word for it, which taught me more than it taught the girls, probably.

You're heavily involved in their education too with constant meetings and away visits to marae. There was almost a punch-up at our kohanga one night over the direction we were taking.

At times it was tough, it was lonely, and it was intimidating. But all the experts assured me it would pay off.

It certainly has. The girls are both fluent in te reo and English. They are bright and creative.

My older daughter now attends a mainstream school. She's just achieved her year 11 NCEA credits in te reo Maori - two years early. She loves other languages too and is learning French and Mandarin. Her brain is wired for languages. Learning two from birth has undoubtedly helped.

The girls' hard work has paid off. I urge every parent to encourage their children to pick up te reo early - it can only help them.

Te reo is part of who we are. When I watch my girls perform publicly it still sends shivers up my spine. I don't seek to claim any credit for them speaking te reo, but I'm proud as hell that they can.

Let's all be proud of who we are and what we have. When we lose a taonga (treasure) like a language, it's almost impossible to get it back.

- The Dominion Post

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