For years former Silver Fern Jenny-May Clarkson "bluffed" her way through presenting shows on Māori TV.

"I was on auto cue, reading te reo Māori, but people knew I didn't actually know what I was saying."

It all hit home one day while Clarkson was in Raglan Four Square, and a kuia started speaking te reo Māori to her. A young man nearby asked if she knew what the kuia had said.

"I said, 'No'.

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"And he goes, 'She said you're beautiful and that she likes seeing you on the television'."

Clarkson got her groceries, got into her car, and burst into tears.

"It just hurt so much. Here was this woman, paying me a compliment, thinking I knew the reo, and I had no idea what she was saying. I was so ashamed."

Clarkson decided to turn that around, and a year later in 2012, took time off to do a full immersion course at Te Wānanga Takiura in Auckland.

While there has been a slow decrease in the number of Māori adults fluent in te reo, the number of basic speakers has increased from 153,500 in 2001, to 257,500 in 2013.

Of those, 50,000 Māori could speak about almost anything, or at least many things in Māori. There was also a large increase in the proportion of younger Māori with some ability to speak te reo.

Clarkson, of Ngāti Maniapoto descent, grew up in Piopio in the King Country. She and her five siblings played at their marae Mokaukohunui during tangi and hui, but never learned te reo.

Her grandmother spoke only Māori with her children, including Clarkson's father, but she died in her early 40s.

"When she passed away there was nothing."

Her Pākeha grandfather told his children there was no use in learning it.

"Even though he could stand on the marae and whaikōrero, it was his belief that to walk in this world, the Māori language was not going to help you."

Jenny-May Clarkson encourages all New Zealanders to give te reo Māori a go. Photo / File
Jenny-May Clarkson encourages all New Zealanders to give te reo Māori a go. Photo / File

When her father Waka Coffin was in his 50s he went back to te reo through night classes.

"I didn't take any notice of it then. But when I started my own journey I thought, 'Far out, my dad is too cool'. He just knew something was missing."

When Clarkson started her own reo journey she too knew something was missing.

Learning te reo was tougher than she expected.

"I hated every single day. I felt that everybody could see I was a fraud.

"But it was actually more about the shame of being Māori and not knowing my language, unwrapping that."

After six months Clarkson felt like she was going nowhere.

"I would cry every night. It was the hardest thing I have ever done."

A turning point came when she travelled with her reo class down to Turangawaewae Marae for the Koroneihana, the first time she had been, despite living in Hamilton for about 11 years.

"It was partly because I was too ashamed, in case somebody wanted to speak to me in Māori."

But this time was different.

"I was listening to the whaikōrero, and within about 30 minutes tears started streaming down my face, because I understood what was being said.

"For so long I had sat on marae and had no idea the korero, the jokes, the tears – I'd sit there like a dummy."

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa kaiako (teacher) Netana Matene said learning te reo was an emotional journey for all involved, but especially Māori.

"Each year, when we run lectures on karanga and whaikōrero, people in the class can feel such a strong connection they break down and cry.

"For Māori it can be especially emotional. It can be a reawakening of principles instilled when they were children, and it all floods back."

Clarkson was making sure her tamariki had a different experience to her, and she only spoke te reo with them.

"I don't want [my twin boys] to have to feel that whakamā (shame). They are going to have one foot in each world, stand strong, and know who they are."

She had also inspired her husband Dean and his two daughters to embark on their own te reo journeys.

Learning te reo had also reignited a passion for her culture.

"I was home for my brother's tangihanga, and being back on the marae I found this hunger to learn my maniapoto side. It just confirmed that is where I am happiest, most fulfilled."

Clarkson encouraged all New Zealanders to give te reo a go.

"I was too scared to say anything in case I got it wrong. I think people want to try, so let them, then let's āwhina (help) after."