From Air New Zealand to Spark, ANZ to Z Energy, Radio NZ to Herald publisher NZME, they're all doing it - embracing te ao Māori (the Māori world) and te reo Māori.

Businesses and other groups are running language classes, converting ATMs, forming waiata and haka groups, learning the correct pronunciation of place names, using Māori in annual reports, teaching directors, launching translation apps, visiting marae, learning about culture and history, using formal Māori greetings and appointing executives to drive transformation programmes.

At Air New Zealand, for example, more than 150 staff are Māori ambassadors, who promote and share the language, and the airline has developed a badge to identify fluent speakers.

Telecommunications company Spark has launched its Kupu app, which allows users to take a picture and have the object identified in Māori, as well as using the language internally. Spark brand Skinny is selling the Skinny Tahi phone, which has a te reo Māori dictionary.


And staff from Z Energy are being taught to correctly pronounce the locations of their petrol stations.

But while many businesses embrace te reo Māori, not everyone is convinced.

"Why?" asks AUT history professor Paul Moon. "The intention is there, there's no question of that," Moon says of businesses and other organisations trying to spread knowledge of the language and culture. But he doubts those efforts will revive te reo Māori.

Canterbury University literacy and education researcher Melissa Derby is another who doubts the effectiveness of such well-meant efforts. While they are admirable, she says, she is sceptical about the results.

At Air New Zealand, manager of Māori projects Henare Johnson says, "we have more than 150 staff who are Māori ambassadors and 50 per cent of those are non-Māori." Half of that group were not born in this country.

"They just have a passion for the culture and language. Of the Māori ambassadors, we've identified 20 fluent te reo speakers," Johnson says.

Air NZ worked with Ngā Kete Tuku Iho (the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute) and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) to develop badges that identify fluent speakers. An executive training programme run by staff teaches colleagues mihi and correct pronunciation. Cultural and te reo workshops are run for airport operation managers. New cabin crew graduation ceremonies, with pōwhiri, are held at Te Manukanuka o Hoturoa marae at Auckland airport, with graduates' families invited, says Johnson.

"We regularly deliver team-building half-day and full-day workshops on marae with the culture and language used to build team culture," he says. "The Department of Conservation delivers a three-day marae wananga. Air NZ senior leadership are invited and a number have already participated.

Ngarimu Blair of Ngāti Whātua works with businesses and other organisations. Photo/Dean Purcell
Ngarimu Blair of Ngāti Whātua works with businesses and other organisations. Photo/Dean Purcell

"During Māori Language Week we delivered a social media multi-choice question competition for customers in both Māori and English. This was a hit and people overseas participated," Johnson says.

"We are still at the beginning of our te reo and cultural journey as a company and as individual staff members. "But saying 'kia ora' and 'mā te wā' - our preferred greeting and farewell - many staff have taken up the challenge to enrol themselves in te reo courses, either run by iwi or tertiary institutions."

At Spark, lead corporate relations partner Michelle Baguley calls the Kupu app "hugely successful" and says the business has a Māori business strategy led by Māori business manager Lisa Paraku, in charge of things such as increased te reo literacy.

"Over the last 18 months, Spark has created its own waiata that is performed by staff, offered te reo lessons to staff, started using mihi and powhiri at all our staff events, delivered a week-long selection of staff activities during Matariki and Māori Language Week," says Baguley.

"We have also translated our purpose and values into te reo and these are prominently displayed around the building. We have our own internal Māori app, Tuia te ao, developed by Kiwa Digital, and it's where our waiata and other information is stored to help us when we begin hui and bootcamps with a karakia and mihi. Te Taura Whiri have provided us with guidelines for Māori language orthography which is being used by our branding teams."

Spark published a Matariki video on social media featuring the Morrison whānau. That was fully translated, along with all its brand campaigns during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori - Māori Language Week.

"Māori words such as 'mahi' are being incorporated into our mainstream branding campaigns. All our call centres used the greeting 'kia ora' during Te Wiki o te Reo Māori," says Baguley. "We have a Māori group at Spark -Te Ahika - formed by a bunch of passionate employees who perform kapa haka and lead us on our Māori journey.

"We partnered with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa to offer an eight-week pilot te reo course to our people and 25 people have graduated. We are now working on a te reo module for our online internal learning and development portal, which will be available to all staff."

Spark has booked TV presenter, author and fluent speaker Scotty Morrison to work with its leadership squad next year, she says. "All our translations are provided by certified translators via Te Taura Whiri."

Baguley also cites Skinny's Tahi phone as an example of embracing te reo. "We think that a te reo Māori language option should be just as relevant in New Zealand technology as an English language option. Skinny has made a te reo Māori dictionary standard on this phone. When users are typing a Māori word, they won't be prompted to correct it because the dictionary recognises it and autocorrects mis-spelt Māori words and adds macrons if needed.

"Māori language and culture is special and unique to New Zealand and we'd like to play a role in supporting the revitalisation of the language and help it to prosper via digital platforms. We are also one of three corporate organisations chosen by Te Kotahi Research Institute to take part in a 12-month study on te reo Māori in business."

Selwyn Hayes of EY Tahi - EY's Māori-focused operation - says it holds beginner te reo Māori classes in its Auckland and Wellington offices. "It started earlier this year. We have different tutors in each place, aiming to give our staff an insight and some understanding of Māori culture and language - which is the 'why' do it, the benefits we strive for. We have Māori staff and clients and we acknowledge Māori as tangata whenua of Aotearoa New Zealand."

Fraser Whineray, chief executive of energy company Mercury, encourages other CEOs to get involved. "Don't be afraid, give it a nudge because it's enjoyable and very relevant in the New Zealand context. It's part of who we are. A lot of people are scared of it. But it helps with our sense of identity," says Whineray - a Pākehā who learnt from a Māori teacher in Palmerston North.

Ngarimu Blair is a Tāmaki Makaurau rangatira of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei and says: "For my part, I undertake training on our history for staff and our customary relationships and what they mean in a contemporary business situation."

He is deputy chair of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust and a director of the financially powerful company Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Whai Rawa. He is also credited with being one of this country's most influential Māori leaders and te reo is a passion, with history and creating a deeper understanding of tikanga Māori.

He referred the Herald to Precious Clark, who works with businesses including ANZ, The Warehouse, Microsoft and Z Energy. Last year she held a workshop with 200 Microsoft staff and taught Z employees to correctly pronounce the locations of their petrol stations.

A Z Energy spokesperson says the company is running te reo lessons in Wellington as a trial before it goes to staff elsewhere. "As a Kiwi company, we recognise and embrace what being Kiwi means to us. Te ao Māori and te reo Māori is important to Z because we believe we must reflect and behave in alignment with the aspirations of all people that call Aotearoa New Zealand home, especially tangata whenua. That is what it means to be a Kiwi company."

But while historian Moon doesn't doubt the good intentions behind such efforts, and he desperately wants the language to survive, he says "none of these gestures will make a blind bit of difference.

"If the goal is to genuinely revitalise the language, there's only one way to do that and it's from birth, full immersion. Anything else pretty much fails. Te reo is not dead but it's getting close," he says, noting that there are only 8000 fluent native speakers "and most of them are aged 50-plus".

Paul Moon questions the effectiveness of business moves to encourage te reo. Photo/Doug Sherring
Paul Moon questions the effectiveness of business moves to encourage te reo. Photo/Doug Sherring

"A lot of people speak dead languages, as opposed to extinct languages," he says. "Latin is a dead language but lots of people still speak it and that's the risk with te reo - that it becomes a ceremonial language, like Latin. What's the motivation for businesses to teach it? If they really believe it will revive the language, they would do it differently."

Moon says te reo is in "a near terminal state" and has written a book - Ka Ngaro Te Reo - Māori Language Under Siege - and Killing Te Reo Maori: An Indigenous Language Facing Extinction.

He emphasises he is not attacking the language, but making an "impassioned plea for its future, while acknowledging it is facing the real risk of death". Moon also questions people's "reverential and devotional" approach and says te reo is not heard much day-to-day - and even some te reo teachers speak English when classes end.

"People get excited about great successes, but it's completely misplaced," says Moon. "Why do people want fluency? Because if you don't have that, it's just a ceremonial language."

Canterbury University's Derby also doubts the effectiveness of business moves to boost the language. The academic, who has studied Māori education and early literacy, is sceptical about the results from well-meaning efforts.

"While admirable, it will not result in the revitalisation of te reo," she says. "We may produce citizens who have a basic level of understanding of the language, or who may use te reo words in place of English words. But this usually results in the te reo word being used as a direct translation of the English word, whether that is an appropriate reflection or not."

She asks: will these efforts produce te reo speakers using that as their preferred communication over English? Will it produce people so proficient that they are able to have a conversation about any topic in the language and pass this language on to their descendants?

"In my view, no. An extraordinarily high level of fluency, coupled with significant opportunities to speak te reo all day, every day, are required for this to happen," Derby says.

But she does acknowledge business efforts have other benefits, creating culturally-responsive and inclusive workplaces, where tikanga and te reo have a natural presence.

"I believe this could contribute to staff engagement and buy-in among Māori staff in particular. There is plenty of evidence of this having occurred in the education sector, with the use of te reo and tikanga in schools contributing to better engagement and learning outcomes for Māori students," Derby says.

Making the effort

September's Māori Language Week was embraced by businesses with a variety of initiatives, including:

Hosted free 90-minute te reo Māori classes on Mondays at its Albert St headquarters, run by Precious Clark of Ngāti Whātua. ANZ made 150 spaces available each week.

Introduced te reo Māori for mobile and online customers, allowing them to switch their banking to te reo, and added a twist to the website by adding a learning mode where both English and te reo translations sit side by side. Pera Barrett, BNZ digital people leader, says: "Māori heritage is part of what makes Aotearoa the unique and special place that we call home, and te reo Māori is an important part of that heritage. We're proud to support and celebrate Māori Language Week by launching the new service."

Used 128 digital display boards in branches to welcome customers in te reo Māori and Māori sign language, with shorter versions appearing on ATM screens. Encouraged regional branch staff with videos showing the correct reo Māori pronunciation of their town, and the meaning of the place name. Has translated 2409 English words at 600 ATMs into te reo Māori.

Trade Me
Rebranded during the week, changing its name to Tauhoko, and released te reo Māori words and phrases on its application.

The New Zealand Herald and regional newspaper mastheads transformed to te reo Māori and featured special content daily. Radio stations Flava, The Hits and ZM used Māori versions of their logos and increased use of te reo on air. The video team created short clips on Māori-isms and filmed local kura kaupapa students reading Māori myths and legends in te reo. Digital screens in all offices featured basic words and phrases.

Borrowed words

Academic Paul Moon says increased te reo use is positive, yet studies show that such processes are more likely to be destructive to the indigenous languages than beneficial. "This is because English – uniquely in the world of languages – is almost genetically programmed to appropriate words from other languages and claim them as its own: a sort of linguistic colonisation."

He wrote this piece with three te reo words, can you spot them?

"Wearing his pyjamas, an old bandana and his lucky bangle on his wrist, Jack stood on the veranda of his bungalow, eating toast and chutney, and drinking some fruit punch. He looked out at the puriri trees on the edge of the bush, which was as thick as a jungle. 'I've got to clear some of that whenua,' he said to himself. 'It's so thick that thugs could use it to hide their loot'. But he had been saying this for such a long time that it had become like a mantra. It was getting cold, so Jack went back inside, checked on his moko, who was sleeping in the cot and then went to shampoo his hair."

Moon says he suspects most New Zealanders would be able to identify the te reo words.

"Yet, over 10 per cent of the text in the paragraph is in Hindi, which illustrates both how English soaks up words from other languages and claims them as its own, and how this process – which is happening to te reo – does nothing to revive languages. In fact, it probably does the opposite."

The Hindi words are: pyjamas, bandana, bangle, veranda, bungalow, chutney, punch, jungle, thugs, loot, mantra, cot and shampoo. Hindi is not advanced one bit if English speakers use those words in everyday speech, Moon concludes. So how is te reo being advanced by us sprinkling a few words in with English?