New Zealand's renewed love of its original language

Te reo Māori is the language of New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people and it is celebrated annually during the Māori Language Week.

Wellington has a new beating heart. In June the name Te Ngākau, meaning “seat of affections” or simply “heart” in te reo Māori (literally: the Māori language) has been gifted to the city by the local iwi or tribe for the city’s central Civic Square.

The new moniker is one visible statement of Wellington’s commitment to becoming a te reo Māori city and to ensure the language of New Zealand’s indigenous population is seen and heard much more around the capital city.

”We want to make te reo part of the fabric of the city, show a commitment to the language and acknowledgement of history – because we can, because we should, because Wellington is better for it,” mayor Justin Lester explains.

New Zealand’s first language will soon be popping up in signage on buildings, direction signs, murals and visitor attractions, and in September the capital will host one of the biggest Māori language parades to celebrate the nationwide Te Wiki o te reo Māori or Māori Language Week.  

For one week all New Zealanders are encouraged to give te reo a go. Greet their whānau (family) with a cheerful kia ora (hello) or Mōrena! (good morning), order a kawhe (coffee) and listen to some waiata (song). The Māori music awards will take place as well as workshops, lectures and book launches throughout the country to celebrate the country’s taonga (treasure).

It’s been more than 30 years since te reo Māori was made an official language in the Pacific nation in 1987 but despite many efforts to grow the use of te reo, it is still on the UNESCO list of endangered languages.

“It is important to keep the language alive not just for Māori cultural reasons but also to maintain our unique national identity,” says Māori academic Professor Rawinia Higgins.

The language is a defining feature of the country and an important element to what makes New Zealand distinctive. Te reo Māori is also not just an official language. According to Nanaia Mahuta, Minister for Māori Development, it is the “indigenous language of Aotearoa New Zealand and plays a significant role in establishing strong identities for all tamariki (children).”

While Māori have been trailblazing in language revitalisation efforts globally, Higgins likens the revitalisation to a marathon rather than a sprint. “It is commonly understood that it takes one generation to lose a language and three to restore it,” she explains.

Currently only about 25 percent of all pupils learn te reo at school but the demand is continually rising. The government aims to integrate te reo Māori into all early learning services, and primary and intermediate schools by 2025.

However there are many signs that New Zealanders, Māori and Pakeha (Europeans) alike, are already embracing te reo with a new passion.

“We know that all teaching institutions have more people wanting to learn than they can cater for,” the head of the Māori Language Commission Ngahiwi Apanui reports.

Director of community education in Wellington, Nigel Sutton, told local media he was overwhelmed at how many people want to learn te reo.

"We're running 10 level one courses for the first time ever this term and we have wait-lists of probably twice the number of people we actually have currently enrolled."

Many free classes at universities across the country are also been booked out until 2019.  

More and more businesses are starting to understand the benefits of te reo Māori too.

In Christchurch, fish and chip restaurant Fush was overrun by keen punters when co-owner Anton Matthews started to offer te reo Māori lessons along with the classic Kiwi meal. He expected “a dozen or so” people to turn up, but 600 keen learners lined up for the first class. While he wasn’t able to sustain the demand at that level, te reo is an on-going focus in the restaurant and he’s now dreaming up plans to take it further afield .

Big businesses are taking note too. The country’s national airline Air New Zealand has long greeted its customers with a friendly “Kia Ora” and now identifies Māori-speaking cabin crew with a badge. Finance giant ANZ offers banking choices in te reo, while customers at the McDonald’s in Hastings can now offer a Makanui instead of a Big Mac from the te reo menu.

Vodafone launched an initiative, Say it Tika (Say it Right), that seeks to improve the pronunciation of Māori words on Google Maps. “We are very close to announcing the start of the roll out of name changes after extensive consultation with individual iwi (tribes), the New Zealand Geographic board and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (Māori Language Commission),” says Vodafone’s Meera Kaushik.

Te reo has also made its way into New Zealand’s music charts. The debut album from teenage thrash-metal band Alien Weaponry comprises mainly Māori lyrics and the album charted in New Zealand’s top 10 and has had more than a million streams on Spotify since being released in June.

Even movie lovers can get their te reo fix. Kiwi Hollywood director Taika Waititi enlisted his sister Tweedie Waititi and her team at the Matewa Media Trust to made sure that his blockbuster Thor:Ragnarok can be watched with te reo subtitles. Last year he helped produce a te reo version of Disney’s Moana which proved hugely successful with the younger crowd.

"For indigenous audiences to hear films in their own language is a huge deal, helping to normalize the native voice and give a sense of identification,” he explains.

The renewed interest in the language comes at a time when communication has become internationalised and individualised, the head of the Māori Language Commission says.

“People are looking for the authentic, the real, the things that matter where they are. It means something to be a New Zealander, and this is our country’s own language.”

Apanui has no doubt the Māori language will survive because the Māori people want it to be used as a living language and because other New Zealanders are welcoming it into their lives.

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