Celebrating New Zealand's first kohanga reo - 150 Years of News
Kohanga reo – or Maori language nests – have been a driving force behind the regeneration of the te reo since the first one opened in 1982.
When Pukeatua Kohanga Reo in Wainuiomata took its first intake of pupils in April 1982, it barely rated a mention in the papers, but it was the beginning of what was to become a success story.
The day after the kohanga reo's April opening, The Evening Post said: "The initiatives of the Maori community for getting the venture under way were commended yesterday by the Prime Minister, Mr Rob Muldoon, when he met the elders."
Pukeatua, originally sited in a Fraser St clothing factory, was licensed to care for 35 preschool children and was to be run by a local committee sponsored by the Maori Affairs Department, the newspaper said.
The kohanga reo initiative was in response to growing concern among Maori elders about the decline in the use of te reo. By the 1980s fewer than 5 per cent of Maori schoolchildren could speak the language fluently.
Jean Puketapu and Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi were among those who spearheaded the kohanga reo movement, which placed an emphasis on a total Maori-language immersion setting.
Puketapu grew up speaking te reo, and was determined her grandchildren would have the same opportunity. Her role in setting up the first kohanga reo was the start of 30 years of service to the language, for which she received a Queen's Service Order.
When Puketapu died in 2012 her obituary in The Dominion Post credited her with helping keep the Maori language alive by travelling extensively around New Zealand to help whanau develop their own kohanga reo.
Tawhiwhirangi was made a dame of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009, also for services to Maori education. On receiving the honour she recounted to newspaper how Maori elders gathered in Wellington nearly 30 years earlier to "take responsibility for the language themselves" and initiate the kohanga reo movement.
"About 120 Maori leaders came to Wellington between 1980-81. We realised we had to stop expecting the government to revive the language and make it safe; Maoridom had to do it themselves. We've got to get these children at birth, and their families.
"We had four pilots [kohanga reo] in Wellington and one in Auckland. Within three years there were over 300," she said.
There was "white backlash" from those who "were worried their children's expertise in English would suffer".
But Canadian linguistics professor Jim Cummings, who was visiting the country in 1989 and looking at Maori language programmes, told The Dominion there was no need for such concern.
"A lot people find it difficult to accept English won't suffer, but because English is the language of the environment they can't avoid picking it up," he said.
"It is not enough to teach language, you have to encourage children to talk and write in it, and express their experiences in it."
The success of kohanga reo was such that by 1994 there were 800 kohanga reo catering for more than 14,500 children. By then kura kaupapa – primary and secondary school immersion programmes – had also been set up.
Unfortunately, by 2014, there were half as many kohanga reo, with the decline being attributed to increased compliance requirements. However, more than 60,000 have graduated from kohanga reo since the first one opened.
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