One of our foremost Māori language experts will warn this week that the language will die unless the nation makes a renewed commitment to save it.

Dr Timoti Karetu, who was the first Māori Language Commissioner from 1987-99, will speak out in an inaugural State of Te Reo Māori address on Thursday marking the 40th anniversary of the first Māori Language Week which coincided with Dame Whina Cooper's historic Māori land march in 1975.

"There is an apathy and a torpor pervading the whole of the Māori world, and the language is its victim," Dr Karetu told the Herald.

Dr Timoti Karetu:
Dr Timoti Karetu: "There is an apathy and a torpor pervading the whole of the Maori world, and the language is its victim."

"The Māori world has got to realise that if they want the language to survive, then it is the responsibility of every individual Māori person to do something about it. Don't stand in the wings bleating away until the Māori world wakes up to the fact that unless it does something, the language is going to die."


The proportion of Māori people who speak te reo has dropped in the last two censuses, from 25.2 per cent in 2001 to 21.3 per cent in 2013, resuming a long decline from British colonisation until a brief revival in the 1980s.

Partly this is because the last generation of native Māori speakers, who grew up in rural areas before most Māori migrated to the cities for work after World War II, has now largely passed away.

In the early 1980s, the native-speaking elders of that time created the kōhanga reo movement, in which mostly untrained parents and grandparents volunteered to raise their children and grandchildren in Māori-speaking settings mostly on marae and in private homes. Ninety per cent were unpaid.

The movement grew "explosively" from the first kōhanga in Wainuiomata in April 1982 to 512 kōhanga with more than 8000 children by December 1987. By 1993, when the rolls peaked at 14,500, half of all Māori children in preschool education were in Māori-speaking kōhanga.

But since then the rolls have fallen, dropping below 9000 last year for the first time since 1989. Only 18.5 per cent of Māori children in preschool education nationally, and just 11.3 per cent in Auckland, are now in kōhanga.

With fewer children coming out of kōhanga able to understand Māori, there has been a flow-on decline in school "immersion" classes, defined as teaching any subject in te reo for at least three hours a week. Immersion students peaked at 18.6 per cent of Māori schoolchildren in 1999 and fell slowly to 14.3 per cent last year.

Whina Cooper and her granddaughter Irenee Cooper set off on a dusty Far North road for Parliament.
Whina Cooper and her granddaughter Irenee Cooper set off on a dusty Far North road for Parliament.

In a 2012 report, the Waitangi Tribunal blamed early childhood education policies which have tightened up both on building standards, forcing many kōhanga out of marae, and on staffing, paying more to centres with paid and trained teachers.

More recently, ministers have lost confidence in Te Kōhanga Reo National Trust because of alleged misuse of credit cards, although an Internal Affairs Department inquiry found no wrongdoing. This year the trust was criticised again for a $110,000 koha to its patron, the Māori king.

Education Minister Hekia Parata, who sent her own children to kōhanga, refuses to give the trust more until it creates a "democratic" governance structure.

"It is not acceptable to have self-appointing, life-long representatives of an organisation that receives $90 million of taxpayer funding," she said.

The trust board, which Dr Karetu co-chairs, has recently changed its rules to appoint trustees for five-year terms. Dr Karetu said the trustees had promised to appoint "a completely new board" within three years, but first the movement wanted current trustees to agree with the Government on new policies that would encourage Māori parents to send their children to kōhanga again.