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July 10, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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It’s never too late to learn

My sister and I were raised bilingually and biculturally between Ruatoria and Wellington. We are as comfortable with a tea towel in hand at Hiruharama Pa as we are dropping kai off to Mum at the Beehive. This is testament to the upbringing my parents wanted and secured for us, modelled on the concepts of te reo me ōna katoa and their own reo journeys.

Kia ora tātau e whakamine i runga i ngā kaupapa kei roto i te maheni nei. E hiahia ana ahau ki te kōrero i ngā kōrero e pā ana ki tōku nei hikoi i roto i te reo Māori. I te wā e tamariki ana au, ahakoa matatau rāua ki te kōrero Māori, kāre aku mātua e kōrero Māori ana i roto i to tātau whānau. I tipu ai au i Hinehopu i te taha o tō tātau moana a Rotoiti. Ko ētahi o ngā whānau i reira ko te whānau Malcolm, ko te whānau Curtis me te whānau Tahana hoki. Te katoa o rātau e matatau ana ki te kōrero i roto i tō tātau reo rangatira. Ko tēnei te patai: he aha te take e kūware ana mātou o te whānau Gardiner i roto i te reo me ōna tikanga? That indeed is the question!

I was brought up in a small village where the language of our parents was Māori. The majority of the village spoke Māori i ngā wā katoa. Notable speakers of my generation include Poroa Malcolm, Sir Toby Curtis and the late Arapeta Tahana. All them were and continue to be noted Te Arawa speakers and have held and still hold considerable sway throughout Aotearoa.

Engari i roto i tō mātau whare ko te reo Pākehā anake te reo e kōrerohia e mātau. And yet in our household the language was Pakeha. I cannot recall being discouraged to speak Māori because it never arose as a matter to be considered. I can recall that my mother who was from Te Whānau-A-Apanui seemed to actively recoil from what she described as Māori mumbo jumbo! I don’t know why she adopted this particular stance. My father did not seem to be an active player on the marae and indeed it was not until he was in his 50s following the death of our grandfather Tamehana Gardiner that he assumed his place on the paepae of Ngāti Kawiti-Tamateatutahi hapū.

Given that education was largely in English there appeared to be no need to have any other language. When I went to Whakatane High School, all of my close mates were from Te Teko. Again tino matatau rātau ki te kōrero i roto i te reo rangatira. For some reason they tolerated my ignorance and so there was no incentive to engage more actively in acquiring the language. Ki tētahi o rātau ahakoa he kiri parauri au for all intents and purposes I was a Pākehā. On reflection had I been able to be shamed into doing something about it I might have come earlier to the realisation that while I might be master in the Pākehā world I was not even at Kōhanga Reo standard i roto i te ao Māori.

So how is that at the age of 40 years I decided to do something about my shortfall in skills?

Anei te whakautu ki tērā pātai – ka tīmata au ki te mahi i roto i te ao Māori. I started to work for Māori Affairs and in short order I became the first Director of the Waitangi Tribunal, the first and only head of the iwi Transition Agency and the founding CEO of Te Puni Kōkiri. I kōrerohia e au ki aku kaumatua a Hirini Mead, Monita Delamare, Keita Walker rātau ko Bishop Manu Bennett. Ko taku tono ki a rātau me haere mai rātau ki te tautoko i au i roto i nga mahi uaua o te Tari Māori. Waimarie au ka whakaae rātau ki tāku nei tono. I hanga rātau i tētahi rōpū, ko te ingoa ko Ngā Tuara. Ko te mahi o taua rōpū kia whirinaki rātau ki ngā mahi o te tari Māori me au hoki te Tumuaki.

When you have distinguished koroua and kuia supporting you it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that you still don’t have to master the language. After a couple of years following discussion with them I disbanded the group and struck off on my own to immerse myself in the necessary skills to survive on a marae. It is fair to say I can get by tolerably well now. I can read and hear fluently engari i ētahi wā ka āhua kotiti haere ngā tuhinga me te whaikōrero. Ka mōhio te hinengaro he aha te kupu engari ka miki rapu te arero. Notwithstanding this I am able to enjoy the vast amount of material available on TV, radio and in print to stimulate my ongoing interest in the language.

Kati te wā ki a au ināianei. Ko te tūmanako kia kaha koutou ki te whakapūmau i tō tātau reo rangatira, me te kii anō kāre he korero i tua atu o tērā!


I grew up in a conflicted household. One parent absolutely opposed to te reo and the other whose life sang with the rhythms and meaning of tona ake reo. I was raised in a community where te reo was the main form of communication, but not to and with my generation. I went to a school so small and isolated that Māori was one of the six subjects available.

At university I wrote my thesis in an academic dialect of reo, participated in all activities of the Māori department where only te reo was allowed to be spoken, was a keen performer in kapa haka, national president of the Māori Students Association, and president of my university student union. I stuttered through second language reo enthralled and intimidated by the wit, speed, comedy, character, pith, and punch of nga reo o Ngati Porou.

My student days were punctuated by protest—both as a follower and a leader—as I petitioned for te reo to become an official language, opposed apartheid, demonstrated against the government on all the issues students should raise their voices about… as well as participating in the more benign, yet equally necessary and powerful, forms of protest to get the academic council to pay attention to the structure of a degree in Māori, to get an iwi identifier into the census, to get the state broadcaster to use te reo.

Today it seems even more possible, to me, that we can become a bilingual nation.

The value of learning languages is well documented. The development of neural pathways, the expansion of conceptual frameworks, the sense of culture and identity, the recognition of and respect for difference and diversity, the richness of societal and community capital, international fluency, and commercial potential.

Why would we not learn two languages as a norm? Why not be locally adept and globally functional? And, in Aotearoa New Zealand, why wouldn’t those two languages be Māori and English or English and Māori depending on your starting point? It’s obvious. Staggeringly so.

When we were blessed with our two fabulous daughters we felt obligated to give them the best start in life possible. For us, that meant packing up and moving home. We wanted them to grow up speaking not just Māori, but te reo o Ngati Porou as their first language. We wanted them to come under the care of their fiercely loving grandmother, a Ngati Porou reo zealot, early childhood educator extraordinaire, and magnificent matriarch.

We wanted them to have the total package—to know their cousins, aunties and uncles, their nannies and papas, and their wider whanau, hapu, iwi. We wanted their pepeha of identity to be real and meaningful for them, to wake up each morning as the world does to the first rays of a new day touching their mountain—Maunga Hikurangi, to respect the mighty Waiapu in all its seasons, and to be anchored by waiata and haka to the people and places of their tipuna. We wanted them to know who they are no matter where they might be. And we tethered them to their whakapapa with beautiful ingoa tipuna.

We couldn’t have made a better choice nor given them a greater sense of belonging. Te reo me ona katoa.

We have gone on to give them exposure to and opportunity in other languages and cultures.  And they have been enriched by those experiences. That has not displaced their first love of this land and languages nor diminished their appetite for more travel. It has made their minds and horizons broader and bigger. We want them to be the lifelong, confident, and connected learners that, in my job, I want for all New Zealand’s young people.

I’m asked why I don’t make te reo compulsory in schools? As if not doing so is simply a personal act of willful opposition.

Will compulsion work for or against the ultimate goal? And do we agree on that goal? I’m for a bilingual nation. Others are strongly of the view, te reo Māori mo Māori anake.  

Of all the drivers for successful language acquisition, motivation is essential. Compulsion is the antithesis of motivation. And practical questions such as where are the teachers of te reo? The highest attrition rate amongst teachers is in Māori medium education.

While we have higher than average achievement by Māori in kura, they make up just two per cent of our education system. One in five Māori go to kohanga, only ten per cent of those go on to kura and five per cent to wharekura. And what about the other 98 per cent?

How do we ensure a robust and sustainable Māori medium sector in the first instance? Let alone cater to the entire mainstream through some sort of compulsory edict?

We need more Māori teachers. At all levels, in all parts, and across all learning areas of our education system. There is no more noble nor rewarding profession. Teachers are nation builders—we need help to build the bilingual nation we deserve.  

Become a teacher. That’s got to be a big part of the answer to te reo me ōna katoa.


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