Maori Language Week seems to become better funded and more ambitious every year and it seems possible that Te Reo Maori may be on the verge of a renaissance.

My flimsy evidence for this is that the Howard League has a small trial in te reo-based literacy going in one jail and the early response is very encouraging.

Throughout my Hawke's Bay childhood, there was only one Maori word I could translate for certain and that was the name of the Tutaekuri River which you crossed going between Hastings and Napier.

There would be a little chuckle in our car as we went over the bridge because somehow we all knew that this river was called "dog shit".

(I'm told that, in a nice piece of irony, this name recalls hospitality offered by the locals many years ago) .


This sad state of affairs was despite our family being close to a Maori family and my sister and I having been given the honour, in our teens, of becoming godparents to their Maori babies.

At Parkvale School, we were taught Pokarekare Ana which we sang with gusto, without the faintest idea of what the words meant. (It's a beautiful love poem). There was no Maori version of God Defend New Zealand, and anyhow in those days on auspicious occasions we still sang God Save the Queen.

In Form 1 at Hastings Intermediate School, we had lessons in French with the aid of tape recordings played over the school's classroom speaker system. Our teacher, Miss Pedersen, was learning at the same time as her pupils and I can still recall phrases like "C'est un stylo" (that's a pen).

At Karamu High School I took the "professional" stream, carried on with French and managed a year of German in Form 7.

To get an arts degree at nearly all of the universities in those days, a qualification in a foreign language was required. My friend Sir Paul Holmes could seldom get to his 8am Italian reading knowledge lectures and was not granted his Victoria University BA degree until many years after he'd departed when the language requirement was finally abolished.

So while there were plenty of opportunities and even requirements to learn a language other than English for my generation, those other languages didn't include the one that was all around us, Maori.

This colonial holdover appears to be finally breaking down but the Maori language is still in trouble.

According to Statistics New Zealand.

"The proportion of Māori able to hold an everyday conversation in the Māori language has decreased 3.7 per cent between 1996 and 2013. Between 1996 and 2013, the proportion of the Māori population able to converse in Māori decreased from 25.0 per cent to 21.3 percent".

The same report eloquently explains why the survival of Maori is important:
"Language is intrinsic to expressing and sustaining culture as a means of communicating values, beliefs, and customs. As the indigenous culture of New Zealand, Māori culture is unique to New Zealand and forms a fundamental part of the national identity. Māori language is central to Māori culture and an important aspect of cultural participation and identity".

There are, however some very encouraging signs of a revival.

Here's just one.

When I heard about a new Maori Language text book, Maori Made Easy, by TVNZ presenter and te reo expert Scotty Morrison, I wondered if the Howard League could use it as the basis of a Te reo literacy programme to the more than half of prisoners in our jails who identify as Maori.

The book is aimed at those who want to teach themselves Maori and the only drawback for its use in a jail environment is that learners are encouraged to go online to access lessons in pronunciation. Unfortunately, this isn't possible in a jail.

We emailed our Howard League volunteer literacy tutors to get some idea of how many would be willing to learn Maori along with a prisoner or a group of prisoners and got a very satisfying response.

Just two weeks after launching a small trial with one tutor and two prisoners, I was asked to authorise expenditure for another 25 copies of the Maori Made Easy books, and phoned our tutor to find out what was happening.

It seems that the fact that Maori lessons were on offer had spread rapidly by word of mouth, the initial group of two had expanded to six and there were many more on a waiting list.

It's too early to say that we've struck a chord that will bring normally reluctant learners to literacy, but these events are very encouraging, and I've got the begging bowl out for as many books as I can get.

Mike Williams grew up in Hawke's Bay. He is CEO of the NZ Howard League. All opinions are his and not those of Hawke's Bay Today.