High time to make te reo a core subject in our schools

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Dr Rāpata Wiri has been teaching te reo Māori to students at universities and wānanga in New Zealand and Hawaii and sees technology as a big help in the future. (First published September 12, 2021)

Meng Foon is race relations commissioner. He is fluent in English, te reo Māori, Cantonese and Seyip (from southern China).

OPINION: As the nation marks another Waitangi Day, it’s time once and for all to put our collective weight behind uplifting and upholding a beautiful taonga that is sitting right under our noses, or perhaps at the tip of our tongues.

Te reo Māori, alongside New Zealand Sign Language, is an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand, which is fitting, but there is a sad element to this.

English is a de facto official language by virtue of the numbers who speak it. It is not at risk, and does not need the protection afforded to te reo Māori, a protection that is ultimately outlined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and more recently the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says it’s time for the Government to invest in ensuring the spread of te reo.
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Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says it’s time for the Government to invest in ensuring the spread of te reo.

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One way to protect and indeed strengthen the position of te reo Māori in Aotearoa is to add it to our foundational subjects in schools. I have made my thoughts known to those in Parliament, because there is a momentum we can’t afford to lose.

A lot of that wave of support has been created by the kōhanga reo generations that have helped spread the language through homes, whānau and circles of influence. Te reo is appearing across all sectors of society – in our news broadcasts, popular music and social media trends – but more must be done to make sure this is not a fleeting infatuation. It is time to make te reo a core subject in schools, and for the Government to invest to ensure this can happen.

Early missionaries such as Henry Williams learned to speak te reo, but that changed as more settlers arrived.
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Early missionaries such as Henry Williams learned to speak te reo, but that changed as more settlers arrived.

It must be remembered that the only reason the revitalisation of te reo Māori is a topic is because of the negative impacts of colonisation. In the early years after the signing of Te Tiriti, te reo was still the most-used language across the country, and many prominent Pākehā and missionaries learnt to speak it.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the pendulum swung with the influx of new settlers, and the speaking of te reo was actively discouraged, despite the value it held for Māori. Te reo was suppressed, with a new focus on assimilation, and generations of tangata whenua were punished for speaking their language.

However, redress is not the driving reason te reo should become a core subject in schools. The Government has already seen the need for local history to be taught. Learning our history is an absolute must, with discussions around events such as the New Zealand Wars a necessity. Te reo can also play a role in bringing about context, understanding and empathy between Māori and non-Māori.

Awapuni School in Palmerston North uses te reo in all facets of its learning (file photo).
DAVID UNWIN/Stuff
Awapuni School in Palmerston North uses te reo in all facets of its learning (file photo).

Ideally, the normalisation of te reo would help address issues grounded in colonisation and structural racism. As a lifelong student of te reo Māori, it has helped me build connections with communities I serve, and bridge the gap between many diverse cultures and tangata whenua. Imagine the potential for generational change if everyone spoke English and Māori to at least a basic level.

When people are confronted with such change there are often challenges and fear, but we must overcome that. Tūwhitia te hopo. Banish the fear! Overcome it and move forward, and embrace the wonder of a new Aotearoa.

The appetite for the language is there, with wānanga and adult courses oversubscribed as people, including non-Māori, begin to realise the benefits of being bilingual and coherent in a uniquely New Zealand way. Some migrants I have engaged with have been shocked that the indigenous language is not already being taught to everyone in schools.

Te reo supporters, led by kaumātua Te Ouenuku Rene, take the Māori language petition to Parliament in September 1972.
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Te reo supporters, led by kaumātua Te Ouenuku Rene, take the Māori language petition to Parliament in September 1972.

I understand the Government is working towards strengthening Māori education, and its intentions are to be applauded, but the strategy seems to lack teeth in terms of tangible, urgent action. For years we have heard that there are not enough Māori language teachers, and it is true that many popular courses are restricted because of that issue. But instead of raising this excuse again and again, surely it is time to act.

I would like to see investment in the Budget for incentives to increase the number of Māori teachers, to resource our future as a bicultural nation that sees both tangata whenua and tangata Tiriti thriving. Let’s make teaching, both te reo and in general, an attractive profession. Let’s provide support for those who wish to serve our future generations.

Fifty years ago, the Māori language petition was delivered to Parliament, seeking active recognition for te reo Māori. It is time to progress that recognition and safeguard the language well into the next 50 years and beyond.