A new sense of hope for Te Reo Māori

23:54, Jul 05 2013

Reflecting on Māori Language Week, Hana O'Regan says her family no longer experiences prejudice for speaking Māori in public. Instead, they get positive remarks, words of encouragement and praise.

It's Māori Language Week and our world is once more being adorned with bilingual signs, people in the media making a concerted extra effort to pronounce Māori words properly and a general explosion of Māori language-related activities, articles and programmes - and it's fantastic.

On National Radio the other day, the announcers both started their introductions in Māori. My 8 and 9-year-old children picked up on it immediately and my daughter said enthusiastically, "He rawe tērā nērā Māmā; kai te tino tautoko rātou i te reo" - "That's awesome, eh Mum; they're really supporting the language."

How wonderful for my children, that they can have that moment where they hear and are fully aware that their heritage language is being celebrated and promoted by their wider community.

I couldn't help but feel a surge of pride when I considered how far we have come in the past few decades on this issue.

We have certainly moved from a place where mainstream New Zealand believed it was their God-given right to mispronounce and disrespect Māori place names, Māori words and even people's personal names in a way that they rarely treated any other languages.

Advertisement

Common justifications were, "I've always heard it said that way", or "who cares anyway', or "if I said it like that no-one would know what I'm saying".

In such a short time, we have seen a generational shift where it is now a rare occurrence for me to cringe when hearing a word mispronounced on television or radio, and these are always genuine mistakes as opposed to an outright disregard of the language and its value.

Our broadcasters, our businesses and our print media all need to be congratulated on the work that has been done, during the past decade in particular, to create this cultural change in our society to support a more inclusive, respectful and informed populace.

These efforts and those spearheaded by iwi and Māori organisations such as the kōhanga reo and Te Ataarangi and the Māori Language Commission have not gone unnoticed on the international front, either.

I was recently offered the opportunity to travel to Taiwan to discuss the issues of revitalising indigenous and endangered languages.

Taiwan is the birthplace of the Austronesian language family, which is the biggest language family in the world with more than 1200 languages, and the Māori language is the youngest member of that family.

We are now in the situation where the oldest and youngest members of that language family are endangered as the world experiences the biggest decline in language health in our human history.

Languages are now reportedly more endangered than mammals, fish or plants and yet we are really only just waking up to what is happening around us and what the cost to the world's communities will be.

It was humbling for me to see that many of the language initiatives born here in New Zealand are being used as exemplars for language revitalisation efforts there and elsewhere in the world.

As international attention turns to the issue of worldwide language endangerment, so too do the attentions turn to strategies to support, promote and revitalise more than 50 per cent of the world's languages that are under threat. It is both exciting then, and somewhat daunting, that many eyes are on us, Aotearoa-New Zealand, this little island nation in the South Pacific with only a few million people.

Perhaps the reason for this is we are now 30 years into our struggle for language revitalisation in this country and have managed to get some runs on the board that can be used as exemplars for other groups who have just started on this journey.

The sense of urgency that is now starting to be felt elsewhere has been a major part of our collective effort here for some time but perhaps even we, as a country, haven't really been aware of the enormity of the issue.

The challenge is certainly a significant one. What we know now is that a language can be destroyed in just one generation, and it is comparatively easy to do so. Yet it takes more than three generations and a significantly lot more work and effort, to revitalise a language and to "bring it back" to life.

After 30 years, we still have only 25 per cent of the Māori population identifying as being able to speak te reo to some degree, but at least we are now working in a society that is significantly more open and accepting of te reo as a normal part of our lives.

Even in the 10 short years of my children's lives, I have noticed the change from people in terms of their looks and even comments made when hearing my children speak Māori. At the beginning, I battled mispronunciation of their names, disparaging remarks questioning their ability to speak English and condescending looks, even outright bigoted reactions.

However, in the past two years, none of that former prejudice has been experienced. Instead, we often receive positive remarks, words of encouragement and praise for speaking Māori.

Many people comment on how wonderful it is to hear a family speak Māori among each other and then move seamlessly into English to interact with others.

I'm not suggesting by any means, that our job is now done as we certainly have a long way to go - but the tide has started to turn. It is now a much more fertile ground to watch the efforts made for Māori language to take root and sprout.

We will need to tend and nurture the garden for a long time to come, but the fruits of that labour, such as hearing my children argue, interact with their classmates, joke, sing and discuss the issues of their world, in Māori, - and then hear that same world celebrate, promote and support their language at times like these - they fuel a new sense of hope that is simply sweet to the ear, to the heart and to the soul.

Tēnā koutou katoa.

The Press