A Swiss woman who fell in love with Maori culture after reading Whale Rider, has come to New Zealand to learn te reo and tikanga.

High school teacher Eva Koenig wants to take her new skills learned through Auckland University of Technology for five months back to her students in Europe.

The 52-year-old says she believes Pakeha needed to pick up the pace and embrace the official language, especially as it is free to learn for all residents.

"If New Zealand has two languages and is pursuing a bicultural identity but is only monolingual, then it is not really living the bicultural policy," Koenig told the Herald.


"You can't be bicultural if you only have one language. Because culture is language, and language is culture."

Eva Koenig says Pakeha need to embrace the Maori language. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Eva Koenig says Pakeha need to embrace the Maori language. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Before her trip Koenig researched New Zealand extensively. She thought the country was bilingual and all children went to kohanga reo.

"I thought the English used here has a large amount of Maori words that are used every day.

"I thought I had to learn all these words before I came or I'd left behind. This is not really the case."

It was by reading Witi Ihimaera's Whale Rider that Koenig got hooked. She read more of the author's work and became curious about the te reo words he interlaced with his writing.

A sabbatical allowed Koenig to study te reo and Maori culture and history.

Koenig, who is originally from Hungary, is fluent in Hungarian, Russian, English and German. Te reo will be her fifth language.

"The Maori culture is on the rebound," she said in explaining to the Herald why she chose te reo.


"There's positive development and revitalisation, people are proud of their culture.

"In Australia it seems like a much more depressing situation ... I wanted to go where I could see hope."

Koenig is creating a programme to teach her Swiss students New Zealand history, geography, Maori culture and language.

University of Auckland Maori Studies professor Margaret Mutu said that normalising the Maori language was always welcome.

"Having it as a normal part of New Zealand life in the same way that multilingualism is normal in Europe can only enhance New Zealanders' enjoyment of their own culture."

However, Mutu was hesitant to endorse Koenig teaching te reo overseas. She just hoped her sabbatical was long enough to attain a good understanding of culture, values, laws and world view that the Maori language articulates.

Two cultural differences Koenig noticed was how the Maori family structure is more extended. Everyone takes care of everyone rather than just mum, dad and children living in isolation.

She said you could see an example of this in the pronoun system where Maori have more pronouns for describing how many people are involved in the conversation.

"It's a very people-orientated culture. The pronouns make sure who is included is immediately apparent to everybody."

Koenig said she learns by visualising sentences like Lego building blocks; once she knows the formula it all snaps into place. She said more children should be exposed to te reo when they're young so they can learn easily.

"If everyone spoke more te reo there would be a lot of enrichment within people's lives because each language is a contribution to your personality."

Koenig intends to keep learning te reo by using podcasts, free resources and TV shows. She is looking for te reo speakers in Europe she can Skype with.

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