Rosie Dawson-Hewes: Treasure our native tongue

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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We should all make an effort to know the basics of te reo Maori, one of our official languages.
We should all make an effort to know the basics of te reo Maori, one of our official languages.

We need to have a wee korero, Aotearoa. If you are reading this and don't know that korero means talk, then it's even more needed.

It's Te Wiki o te Reo Maori, our national Maori Language Week, when we collectively celebrate our nation's native tongue. This week you'll no doubt have heard more te reo on the telly and airwaves than you usually would. Shortland Street, which usually has the odd phrase or two, steps it up for a week with entire conversations in te reo.

News items have been broadcast entirely in te reo. Even radio news broadcasts on the NZME stations have started with te reo this week. It's been absolutely glorious. But now I want it all year-round.

Over the years this has become one of my favourite weeks of the year.

It never used to be. I took Maori in high school to fifth form, though I must admit I didn't take it seriously.

I scraped through with the barest of knowledge. In fact, my two lasting memories of it were spending Friday afternoons in our school whare eating delicious fried bread with non-traditional chocolate sauce and sitting an exam that mainly revolved around translating an imaginary trip to a farm.

Today I struggle to string together any sentences other than "Titiro i te kau", which means "Look at the cow" and, as you can imagine, doesn't come in handy very often.

And while I didn't realise it when I was 15, as I get older I realise how important te reo is. We live in a diverse society, with people of many different cultures and backgrounds. Most of those of us who live here are immigrants. Whether you arrived here last year or last century the fact remains - te reo is Aotearoa's native language. We should all make an effort to at least know the basics. It's the least we can do as kaitiaki (guardians) of this beautiful land we all call home. It's a sign of respect.

I have a colleague born in Liverpool who, bless her, has the worst te reo pronunciation I've ever heard. We constantly rib her about going to puke in Te Pewk, as she says.

Her pronunciation of Aotearoa last week was so poor we could barely tell what she was saying. And while we joke and make fun of her, at least she's trying. And for that I am so proud of her. She understands simple words and phrases well enough to drop them into a written sentence and have them make sense. Last week she spoke about a kaupapa (project) with ease. While our colleagues ramp up the friendly banter with her, I beam with pride. She told me yesterday she's taking a te reo course at a wananga next year. Good for her.

As far as I'm concerned, if you want to claim Aotearoa as home, and we'll happily welcome anyone who wants to, then you should also make an effort when it comes to te reo. We all should and it shouldn't be hard. I remember when I was a kid we had a sign in our bathroom that said "horoi o ringa ringa" (despite my parents being Aussies who moved here in the 1970s). That phrase is permanently seared into my memory. This is easiest way to learn - through simple, everyday phrases and words that everyone can use.

We have three official languages in this country, and yet two of them aren't compulsory in schools. Maori should be compulsory in schools (as should New Zealand Sign Language, our third official language). If our kids come home with te reo homework, we'll have to learn too, just so we can help them. While it's awesome that so many of our local schools teach te reo now, it shouldn't be a choice. And resources for it should be funded by the Ministry of Education.

Te reo is such an important part of who we are as a people. We are a multicultural, melting pot of a nation. Our language should reflect that, and not just for one week of the year. It's vital that we take action now to ensure its survival in future.

My favourite Maori whakatauki (proverb) is "Kaua e mate wheke mate ururoa" which means "Don't die like a octopus, die like a hammerhead shark". Octopuses are known for their lack of resistance when captured, while a hammerhead shark will fight bitterly to the end. We must be hammerhead sharks about te reo - we can not give up, no matter how hard the struggle is.

This will be my last column for the Bay of Plenty Times. Thank you for your readership and feedback over the past year. It has been a privilege to share my thoughts with you.

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