How New Zealanders are working to keep the Māori language alive

Each September, New Zealand celebrates and promotes the Māori language, one of the country's three official languages.

"Kia ora!" - the popular Māori greeting that visitors encounter during their travels in New Zealand - is a reflection of how this bicultural country is seeking to embrace its powerful indigenous heritage.

But it wasn't always like that ... just over 30 years ago, in 1984, when telephone operator Naida Glavish began answering the phones with “Kia ora, tolls here”, her supervisor threatened to fire her.  Her staunch refusal to bow down soon sparked widespread public debate. 

While some opposed the use of the classic Māori greeting, others started to call the tolls exchange specifically to speak to “the kia ora lady”. Airline pilots also began to use the term to greet passengers.

Eventually then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon intervened, saying she should be allowed to say whatever she liked “as long as she doesn’t wanna say Gidday Blue,” remembers Glavish, who went on to become a Māori language teacher and later an adviser on tikanga (Māori practices and culture) in the health sector.

These days visitors to New Zealand are greeted with 'kia ora' and numerous initiatives are working hard to ensure the future of the country’s first language as a living and integral part of New Zealand life. But it has been a long road and is still an ongoing effort.

Until 1860 te reo Māori (literally: the Māori language) was the dominant language in New Zealand and many of the settlers became fluent speakers. But as Pākehā (Europeans) became the majority, English took over as the prevalent language and te reo was confined to Māori communities. 

By the beginning of the 20th century the Māori language had been suppressed in schools, and even today some elders remember being punished for speaking their own language. 

After World War II, the prospect of jobs lured many Māori to live in cities and they often became alienated from their language and culture. The use of te reo declined rapidly and by 1980 only about 20 percent of Māori were able to hold a conversation in te reo.

Around that time initiatives to rescue the language were launched, one of which was kōhanga reo (language nest) full immersion kindergartens, where children reconnected with Māori language, knowledge and culture.

In 1985 the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledged that the language was a taonga (treasure) and that the government was obliged to protect it. Two years later and 30 years ago this year, Māori was made an official language of New Zealand.

“Since 1987 there has been a huge increase in Māori language education at pre-school, school and tertiary level,” Māori Language Commission boss Ngahiwi Apanui says.

Māori broadcasting has expanded to 22 radio stations and two television stations. It is used very frequently in parliament and it has become common to hear it spoken at formal events. Hundreds of Māori words have also entered the general Kiwi vocabulary. 

One of these is 'whānau' which means family and is also the word for 'to be born'. “It (whānau) is metaphorically extended to mean close associates as well as relations by descent. Many New Zealanders use this word in this way which aligns closely to its use in Māori,” Apanui explains.

Another word that can often be heard is 'mana' .”It has been widely used for decades because of the absence of a word in English that combines the ideas of authority and prestige from multiple sources – descent, achievement, actions and so on,” Apanui says. 

One of the plans to make te reo more relevant is Rotorua’s recent announcement to become New Zealand’s first bilingual city. In the future there will be bilingual street signs, and cultural heritage leader Te Taru White says that ideas such as bilingual menus or gym sessions and rewards for te reo being used by locals and tourists are being discussed. 

He adds that “there are many more opportunities to lift the bilingual footprint of our city, and in doing so not only educate our local communities and the rest of New Zealand but also provide a deeper experience for international visitors about our people, our culture and place.” 

Actions like the bilingual city are so important because they bring te reo to life. Despite the many initiatives to grow the use of te reo, it is still on the UNESCO list of endangered languages. 

“Take your eye off the ball in one generation and it can be lost, which has happened in parts of Canada and the United States,” White warns. 

A prominent proponent of te reo who heads another initiative is Kiwi film director Taika Waititi (“Boy”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Thor: Ragnarok”).

Earlier this year he created the Matewa Media Trust together with his wife and sister, with the mission of fostering and promoting the use of te reo. 

Waititi says translating mainstream films into the Māori language had been a dream of his. The trust’s first major project is of Disney’s latest blockbuster Moana, which is based on Waititi’s original screenplay. 

"For indigenous audiences to hear films in their own language is a huge deal, helping to normalise the native voice and give a sense of identification. It also encourages our youth to continue with their love and learning of the language, letting them know their culture has a place in the world," he says.

The Māori version of Moana will be released during Māori Language Week (11-17 September).  Māori Language Week will have many activities around the country, including a street parade in Wellington, open lectures, the Māori music awards as well as book and record launches.

But is this all enough for ensure the survival of the language? 

“Survival itself will not be threatened in my lifetime or probably in the lifetime of anyone alive today,” Māori Language Commission’s Apanui says. 

Today about 130,000 Māori have conversational fluency, 300,000 are learning the language at school and 10,000 in tertiary education. New research also points to the language being picked up by children in the home in places where this tradition died out in the 1970s.

Even if revitalisation efforts were to stop, people will still be using te reo Māori for hundreds of years. The real threat is that the Māori language could become more and more restricted in where and what it is used for.

Apanui says “we do not want Māori to become an elite language held by a few experts and used in only formal and traditional settings.”

His vision is a Māori language in the original sense of the word. Ordinary and normal.

Ten Maori words to learn before you visit

Kia ora – Hi (general informal greeting)
Haere mai - Welcome! Enter! 
Mōrena - Good morning!
Manuhiri - Guests, visitors 
Haka - Chant with dance for the purpose of challenge
Aroha - Compassion, tenderness, sustaining love
Mana - Authority, power; secondary meaning: reputation, influence
Manaakitanga - Respect for hosts or kindness to guests, to entertain, to look after
Tūrangawaewae - A place to stand, a place to belong to, a seat or location of identity
Haere rā - Goodbye