Tauranga man George Burt has been speaking Māori for more than 30 years.

Papa George, as he is affectionately known, speaks te reo so well that when people on marae ask 'who's the Pākehā speaking?', others reply 'what Pākehā?'.

But men such as Papa George are few and far between in Tauranga according to statistics.

The city is the largest centre in the Bay of Plenty, but it has the fewest number of people who speak te reo.


Figures from the 2013 Census, the latest figures available, show only 3.8 per cent of Tauranga's 114,789 population spoke Māori. By comparison, 20.8 per cent of people in Opotiki, which had a population of 8436, speak te reo.

Papa George said he expected the figures to have changed since then.

"The younger generations are coming through very, very strong," he said.

"There's an older generation which missed out because their parents were discouraged from speaking Māori and it just didn't get passed on. That was the 60s, 70s, 80s age group. But that's changed. It's really impressive."

Papa George works as a contractor offering technical support to iwi radio around New Zealand. It's partly because of this role, and that as husband to Katikati actress Mabel Wharekawa-Burt, that he has been involved in many Māori events over the years including Ngā Manu Kōrero speech competitions.

"Those winners of those competitions who excel, they go on to become pillars of the language later in life. I definitely see an improvement [in the language]."

Papa George also felt the establishment of kaupapa-based schooling and more te reo classes were significant in the development of the language among younger generations in Tauranga Moana.

"I see a lot of effort going into learning and upskilling and more and more chances to do it."


Papa George said he has seen Moana Radio send staff to te reo classes as part of their professional development and in other years, bring in Māori tutors to help strengthen the language.

"Once one has that level of understanding of te reo ... it's great.

"This is why kids at Wharekura O Mauao do so well. They are in a Māori environment. Their cultural assets are valued."

In 2017 the school achieved a Year 11 NCEA Level One pass rate of 91 per cent, Year 12 Level Two pass rate of 93 per cent, Year 13 Level Three pass rate of 77 per cent and a Year 13 University Entrance rate of 49 per cent.

Moana Radio board member Charlie Tawhiao said he saw Papa George as a role model.

"All reo learners go through difficult periods, but I'm luckier than George who never grew up listening to Māori. It's something he's chosen as an adult and the fact he can do it reminds me never, ever to give up. It's in my DNA, but that doesn't mean it just happens. I still need to develop the skills and practice," Tawhiao said.