Te Peri Taikato still remembers running around on Matakana Island fluent in te reo Maori. These days, he barely speaks it at all.

"My grandparents spoke te reo Maori. I've just kind of lost the fluency over the years. I've been staying in town, not over there."

If Mr Taikato had stayed, the 24-year-old would have been among the 135 out of 252 people on Matakana Island who speak the Maori language, according to the latest Census figures available.

The 53.5 per cent figure is the highest for te reo speakers per suburb throughout the Western Bay of Plenty. By comparison, te reo speakers in Omokoroa feature at just 2.2 per cent.


When asked if he missed it Mr Taikato was certain: "Yeah, hard.

"It's kind of hard to get it back. Being immersed with people who speak it, that's how you do it."

The 2013 data also singled out Tauranga's Merivale, Maungatapu, and Tauranga Hospital area as having the highest number of people speaking te reo with 9.9 per cent, 6.3 per cent and 6.2 per cent respectively.

This compared to suburbs with the fewest - Tauranga Marina (0 per cent), Bethlehem East (0.7 per cent), and Otumoetai South (1.2 per cent).

Matakana Island elder Hauata Palmer was heartened but hoped the island's figures were closer to 100 per cent in the next Census.

Although most of the island's population was Maori, there was a significant gap between people in their 20s and 50s who had no te reo skills at all, he said. But that was changing.

Te Peri Taikato used to be fluent in te reo Maori when he was growing up on Matakana Island but he's lost the language after moving to the mainland. Photo/Andrew Warner
Te Peri Taikato used to be fluent in te reo Maori when he was growing up on Matakana Island but he's lost the language after moving to the mainland. Photo/Andrew Warner

"For somebody of my age, I'm hearing a lot more people speaking reo out in public. I keep comparing it to when we were young. We weren't encouraged to, we weren't even allowed to, at school. So to hear it being spoken, it's really great."

Mr Palmer said he noticed more younger people and pakeha speaking te reo, which warmed his heart.

Councillor Larry Baldock, who represented Otumoetai and Bethlehem, said one of his greatest regrets was that despite once learning it, he couldn't converse in te reo. The language faded over time without regular use.

Mr Baldock guessed his constituents were too busy for regular Maori classes but he was keen to explore the issue at a council level.

Fellow ward councillor Catherine Stewart said without knowing the demographic of Bethlehem it was hard to explain why so few people spoke Maori.

Mrs Stewart said she spoke ''little" te reo but would commit to pronouncing Tauranga and Otumoetai correctly.

Bringing back te reo Maori in Merivale

Merivale's Community Centre is seeing first-hand a resurgence in te reo Maori - and the benefits to children it is bringing.

The centre hosts Maori language classes twice a week and often deals with children from Merivale School hanging out after class.

"The kids come in here and they are confident and proud. They are correcting adults pronouncing things wrong. And it's not a shame thing," general manager Sophie Rapson said.

"When the kids come here, it's always whaea [aunt] Sophie or whaea Alex, that's something they did themselves, decide to call us that."

Ms Rapson said the Merivale community openly embraced te reo Maori and she was not surprised the area was among the highest Maori language speakers in the Western Bay of Plenty.

Youth worker Leighton Whitewood said the community openly embraced te reo Maori, including older residents were doing their bit with the Maori Language classes.

"Times are changing. The make-up of those classes out there is easily 30 to 40 per cent pakeha."

Mr Whitewood said he was among those adults wishing he knew more of the language.

"My nan spoke fluent te reo but I never took interest in learning it. My dad and his brothers and sisters never did it. It was lost. It should be passed on. I want to learn te reo. I know a little bit but I find myself embarrassed (whakama) even at this age if I can't say a word correctly."