Before going to his marae in Opononi, former Aucklander Mike Looker was always a little apprehensive he'd be tapped on the shoulder to speak in te reo.

So he did something about it and pursued learning the language. As part of the Northern Advocate's Māori Language Week/Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, we look at his journey so far.

Growing up in South Auckland with a Māori mother and Pākehā father, the Māori culture wasn't a part of Looker's life.

"We grew up urban and my parents were from the generation where they weren't allowed to speak Māori – it wasn't encouraged. It was there but we didn't have a lot of interaction with it."

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But Looker, of Ngāpuhi descent, embraced his mother's marae in the Hokianga and was always curious to discover more about his heritage.

"I was always proud to come home to the marae in Opononi and, as soon as you come over the hill and see the sand hills, your insides drop and everything stands still."

However, Looker admits to feelings of inadequacy that he couldn't speak the language of his people.

"When you go to the marae you're always afraid that you're going to be tapped on the shoulder to say something and expected to say it in Māori and, hence, people don't go to their marae or they hide out the back. It's very hard for some of us to come back home and it's something I don't think is spoken about enough."

He was working as a Telecom lines technician when, 14 years ago, he picked up the chisel for the first time and began carving out a career in whakairo rākau (wood carving).

Throughout the four-year degree he subsequently embarked on, his interest evolved to graduating as a tutor in whakairo rākau before landing his role three years ago tutoring at Whangārei's NorthTec Tai Tokerau Wānanga.

"Carving draws you into your culture and I was wanting to know more about the deeper connections with Māori and the knowledge that's inside of it," he said.

"My wife and I had done a one-year course in te reo four years ago learning the basics but, coming up here and teaching, I thought what's the point of teaching Māori carving if you don't even know what it means. So coming up here put me in a good position of having to learn."

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Further motivation was that some of his students spoke te reo, as well as his five children.

"My children came through kōhanga reo and can say whatever they like and I wouldn't know what they're saying," he laughed. "Now I do."

Looker embarked on the one-year Ko te Hā o te Reo step two onsite course which he takes part in after hours and during breaks from his tutoring classes.

"I officially made a commitment this year and it was important to find somewhere you feel comfortable learning te reo as it can be an intimidating environment, especially for urban Māori," he said, adding that by the end of the course, graduates are able to carry out a basic conversation and stand up on the marae and introduce themselves with confidence.

Although Looker's mum has passed, he said she would be proud of his exploration of his heritage.

"It's a connecting point for me to my mum and to the Hokianga. It's an understanding, even understanding myself because te reo is very inward-looking and I would highly recommend it to anybody - even people with no Māori connections. Many people with no Māori connection are having a go and they discover the beauty in the language. There's so much depth to it that you can't always explain it in English."

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These days Looker conducts his classes in around 30 per cent te reo Māori and says both tutor and students are learning from each other.

"I hope to be able to just teach fully in Māori one day and be a confident speaker and encourage people who don't know it, to learn it because I have the empathy for those who don't know. A lot of people can feel less adequate which is really sad when really, the people on the marae are just happy to see you but I think it's just something we put on to ourselves.

"I use it everywhere now; in class, when talking to my wife, children, at the shop, anywhere, you'll catch me mixing it up. I love it. It feels good to talk Māori."

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