In 1999 when Hinewehi Mohi infamously sang the Maori version of God Defend New Zealand before a Rugby World Cup match against England at Twickenham it had a far reaching effect, and started a new anthem tradition.

The furore it created was similar to an incident 15 years earlier in 1984 when telephone operator Naida Glavish was instructed by her Post Office supervisor to stop using the greeting kia ora. She was demoted, and then reinstated after a public outcry that saw Postmaster-General Rob Talbot and the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon enter the debate.

A lot has changed since 1984. Maori language is now an official language, newsreaders as a matter of course greet the nation with a friendly kia ora and sign off at night with "po marie", Air New Zealand flight crews landing in Auckland regularly refer to it by its Maori name - Tamaki-Makau-Rau - and the All Blacks sing the national anthem with passion in both Maori and English.

Everyday use of Maori language in Aotearoa is accepted in many areas of society but we still have a way to go before its usage is normalised. What I mean by normalised is creating a society that anyone living in Aotearoa has the opportunity to learn, speak and use Maori anywhere and at any time.


This week is the 40th Maori Language Week celebration. This year's focus is on nurturing the language of parents, recognising that learning begins at home.

This is exactly how my learning of te reo began. I grew up in Dunedin in the early 70s and at that time Maori language wasn't available at either primary or secondary school, or even university. My sister and I studied French and German instead.

So my Pakeha mother took matters into her own hands. She made small cards with handwritten single words and phrases, English on one side, Maori on the other.

My fondest language learning experience is of my sister and I yelling out the words on the cards through the wall dividing our bedrooms before we went to sleep. The game went something like this. I'd say "pass the salt", she'd reply, "homai te tote". I'd say "bread", she'd reply "pata" instead of "paraoa". Because she got it wrong it was my turn to answer her question, she would yell out "hello to two people." My reply, "tena korua" and so the game went on until we got bored or we went to sleep in the middle of a sentence. It still makes me laugh to think about it today. This didn't make me a fluent Maori language speaker by any stretch of the imagination but it certainly planted a seed in me that I have nurtured over the years.

Unfortunately Maori language use is declining and is categorised as "vulnerable" on Unesco's endangered language list. It would be all too easy to leave language development in the hands of Maori learning institutions like kohanga reo, kura kaupapa and Maori universities (wananga). My concern is that left to a small group of language pathfinders, it will take too long to get all New Zealanders to the point where the use of Maori is normalised.

As the head of Maori Television charged with providing quality Maori language and cultural programming to viewers, I would like to invite you all on a te reo journey, you can enjoy watching our programmes on the telly or on your iPad, and at the same time maybe learn how to pronounce Maori words or phrases. We all have a role to play in ensuring the future of this New Zealand taonga (treasure), so why not make a start and give it a go.

29 Jul, 2015 11:13am
2 minutes to read

Toku reo toku ohooho, toku reo toku mapihi maurea.

My language is my awakening, my language is the window to my soul.

Paora Maxwell is chief executive of Maori Television.