Maori language in danger of dying out, principal warns

Te Wharekura o Arowhenua principal Gary Davis and student Shakayla Andrews, 17, celebrate the Invercargill school's 25th ...
Kavinda Herath

Te Wharekura o Arowhenua principal Gary Davis and student Shakayla Andrews, 17, celebrate the Invercargill school's 25th anniversary with kai on Sunday.

The celebration of the 25th anniversary of a Maori language total immersion school in Invercargill has come with a warning that te reo is in danger of dying out.

Te Wharekura o Arowhenua principal Gary Davis, speaking to Fairfax during the school's reunion celebrations at the weekend, said the Maori language was in "dire straits".

He believed Maori-speaking schools were the best way to keep the language going.

Former Te Wharekura o Arowhenua school principal Arni Wainui.
John Hawkins

Former Te Wharekura o Arowhenua school principal Arni Wainui.

"It's still a struggle to ensure our language survives and we see ourselves as a way of managing to do that."

With the older generation of native speakers beginning to dwindle in numbers, there was not a large base of fluent speakers in the country, he said.

"Either we try and ensure the survival of our language or it will become extinct." 

"The language is our culture. If we lose our language, we lose a large part of who we are and who we identify ourselves as."

The 2013 census says 50,000 people of Maori ethnicity in New Zealand who are aged over 15 can speak Maori "very well" or "well", according to  Statistics NZ.

But Davis said Maori estimates were that 15,000 to 20,000 could speak the language fluently but many were older and numbers were dwindling.

Te Wharekura o Arowhenua is one of about 70 full te reo schools in New Zealand.

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The school's 25-year celebrations at the weekend included a powhiri welcome for visitors and past students, a Matariki Ball at the Ascot Park Hotel, sports games, and a trip to previous locations of the school, before it moved to its current Tweed St site in 1999.

The 160 students at Te Wharekura o Arowhenua, who are taught by 17 teachers, learn their lessons in te reo Maori.

Students can complete NCEA the same as mainstream schooling except it is in te reo Maori.

Fluent Maori-speaking teachers were also in short supply, with Davis saying it was a struggle to recruit a teacher when one left.

The Te Wharekura o Arowhenua school in Invercargill got off to a rocky start a quarter of a century ago. 

Some parents in the district decided they wanted a different direction in education for their children, and Arni Wainui, a school stalwart and principal for two decades until this year, provided the impetus to make the school a reality.

The school was "illegal" for its first two years and was threatened with legal action but gained formal status in 1992.

"It was the wish of those people at that time; they wanted their kids to learn in te reo Maori," Davis said.

And so it has continued.

"All our lessons are done in te reo Maori, that's from our babies to year 13 students." 

The school introduces English in year 7.

Many of the kids at the school were not in households that spoke Maori, he said.

"Part of our vision is we lift te reo Maori speaking in households."

"We are really proud of our kids. They are our focus and they are our number one asset and we are really proud of how our kids behave and do their thing."

Early this month, the Southern Institute of Technology said there had been an increase in the number of students taking Maori language and culture subjects, from 180 to 300 between 2012 and 2016.

This year, 220 students are taking te reo as a language subject at SIT.

 - The Southland Times

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