Multilingual kura principal’s verbal view on Maori Language Week — Te Wiki o te reo Maori.

UENUKU Fairhall could speak Chinese and Spanish before embracing te reo Maori yet it's the subject on which his career's hinged.

For almost two decades he's been principal of Te Kura o Te Koutu, a school dedicated to teaching te reo the total immersion way.

So who better to chat with as the nation marks Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori - Maori Language Week?

But with Uenuku this is a topic with a twist, te reo may be in pole position on his kura's curriculum but Spanish comes a close second.

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The whys and wherefores will fall into place as this linguist's story unfolds.

If it distresses him that our te reo is shamefully limited and our pronunciation makes him wince he dismisses it with the assurance any language is difficult to learn.

"Maori's difficult because of its tenses and verbs, unlike English it doesn't have regular verbs."

It's kindnesses of this sort that elevates him to "gentleman scholar" status; join that with author and composer. He's won two Pikihuia awards for stories in te reo and writes lyrics for song and haka.

"I really enjoy working the words to fit the tune and rhythm."

Uenuku was 8 when his logger father took his family to Canada where forestry jobs were plentiful but seasonal by nature.

"Dad would follow the work, in Grade 4 I went to five schools in a year."

Twelve years after arriving in Canada he enrolled at the University of British Columbia, however home beckoned; he returned to study Chinese and Spanish at Auckland University.

"I'd always been good at languages, had my heart set on working for the diplomatic service but after two years my maternal grandmother said 'why don't you learn Maori?' and I realised for me it was right thing to do."

Newly capped, he shunned traditional graduate pathways, moving to Rotorua "my tribal background" and became a postman.

"I was always forgetting my key to the bike shed, but I was kinda glad because this postwoman, Aroha Pirihi, would let me in. I was enamoured with her because her great grandfather was Kepa Ehau, someone we'd heard much about at university ... she helped me add BY to my BA."

"BY"? We're bewildered. The answer's accompanied by gales of his trademark laughter.

"BY equals baby, by the time we married we had a 1-year-old ready-made flower girl."

With a family to support, the new dad swapped his postie's bike for Waikato University's teachers' course.

"Being a postman was good for the body but not so good for the mind."

His first position was the bilingual unit at Tauranga Boys' College, teaching Maori, social studies and maths.

"I've always loved maths."

When Western Heights High opened its bilingual unit in 1990, Uenuku was enticed home to head it.

"It began with 24 students, by the time I left seven years later there were nearly 200, four subjects were taught in Maori, four in English, but I never spoke English in front of the students ... only two objected, interestingly both were Maori, the rest of the student body just accepted it."

During his Heights years he chaired Te Kura o Te Koutu's board.

"We operated out of the wharekai [dining hall] on Koutu marae, I thought the children needed a better deal, when the principal left I put my hand up for the job."

In 1998 the kura moved to its present Russell Rd campus, catering for 36 Year 1 to 13 co-educational students.

His dream was for an initial roll of 42.

"I've no idea why 42 was such a magical number, today our roll's 230, more than 20 teachers."

It's here Spanish enters the kura's educational equation.

"I thought these children are only doing Maori context units, why not look at the world?"

Ancient Egypt became first port of call. "We had all these sarcophagi [Egyptian coffins] hanging in the school, the Egyptians drank beer so we made ginger beer, a dozen exploded, it was a hell of a mess; the kids ate dates, olives, learned maths with Egyptian numbers, they loved it."

Uenuku considered Mayan the logical progression "but it was a bit grim with lots of sacrifices so I thought we'd do some Spanish, the whole school's been learning it since 1999, every three years we take a trip to Mexico.

"It's a fantastic language for us because the vowels are the same as Maori vowels, not lazy like English ones."

If Uenuku has a worry about te reo it's that it could become a dead language.

"Like the Latin of the church, but hopefully there's enough groundswell to pass it on to the next generation and they'll pick it up and run with it."

Is, we ask, there a danger students from kura where te reo Maori's routinely spoken are ill-prepared for the English-speaking world?

"If we have infected any of our youngsters to continue to use it we are really proud, recently a former student who's now a policeman came and showed the kids his Taser, his extending baton, but he said he'd never used them, that his best weapon's his mouth... diffusing tense situations by speaking and reasoning in Maori."

Uenuku's opinion of Maori Language Week being viewed by some as tokenism while others are demanding a month-long event?

"It increases cultural knowledge, strengthens linguistic muscle, but, no I don't believe every week should be Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori, it's the trigger that makes people think [about te reo Maori], if it was more than a week less of this would happen."

UENUKU FAIRHALL

Born:

Feilding, 1956.

Education: Foundation pupil Hilltop School, Taupo; schools throughout Canada; Universities of British Columbia, Auckland and Waikato.

Family: Wife Aroha, two sons, daughter (wife and daughter teach at Te Kura o Te Koutu), one mokopuna.

Iwi affiliations: Ngati Rangiwewehi, Ngai te rangi.

Interests: Whanau, students, "linguistic landscape", "quality" literature (a Ken Follett novel in Spanish sits next to a te reo dictionary on his office bookshelf), fitness "I ride around the lake for the hell of it." Writing, music, whakapapa "I get a kick out of genetic connections", travel. "My wife and I spent a year on exchange in Chile."

On Rotorua's commitment to te reo Maori: "Variable, there're only five words in Maori in the entire mall yet there're a lot more in Countdown [Fairy Springs Rd]."

Personal philosophy: "Everybody should acquire something they can share."